DUP and SF gains emerge as North count continues
Results in the Northern Ireland assembly election are starting to come in this afternoon with a pattern of gains for the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Fein is emerging.
The DUP and Sinn Fein took the first two seats the North Belfast constituency with the election of Democratic Unionist Mr Nigel Dodds and Sinn Fein's Mr Gerry Kelly.
In East Belfast, Mr Peter Robinson of the DUP and Sir Reg Empey of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) were elected. Sinn Féin leader Mr Gerry Adams has been elected in West Belfast, on the first count.
In East Antrim, DUP leader, Rev Ian Paisley, and his son Mr Ian Paisley junior were elected, as was Mr Robert Coulter of the UUP.
Counting of votes began at 7 a.m. and will continue until 10 p.m. tonight. Counting will resume in the morning with full results due tomorrow afternoon.
Early indications suggested gains for Sinn Féin and the DUP. A low turnout of about 60 per cent was reported, down on the previous elections to the Assembly in 1998.
Last night, an RTÉ exit poll suggested the UUP and the DUP were level on 25 per cent, and that Sinn Féin had overtaken the SDLP, with 20 per cent and 16 per cent respectively. However, the poll only took account of first preference votes. Northern Ireland operates a proportional representation voting system.
The parties are contesting 108 seats in the Assembly. Transfers will prove crucial in the elections which are based on 18 six-seater constituencies.
Even after the result is declared, many problems lie ahead for the suspended power-sharing Northern Ireland Executive.
UUP leader and former first minister Mr David Trimble, says he will not go back to power-sharing with Sinn Féin unless the IRA shows it is ready to fully disarm.
Dr Paisley wants to tear up Belfast Agreement, and has said if his party holds the upper hand after the election there will be no negotiating with Sinn Féin.
As the count proceeded today Mr Paisley confirmed neither he nor any member of his party would talk with Mr Adams's party.
"I think that I am entitled to ignore murderers. I dont see Mr Bush and Mr Blair talking to terrorists. They're using millions and millions of pounds to blow them out of existence.
"We don't need any murderers in this country," he added.
On his unionist rival Mr Paisley said: "I think David Trimble is yesterday's man and so is the Ulster Unionist Party".