Northern Ireland election could fundamentally alter the political landscape

Polling suggests Sinn Féin on course to secure greatest number of seats in Stormont Assembly

Party election campaign posters are seen ahead of voters going to the polls on Thursday in Hilsborough, Northern Ireland. Photograph:Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Voters in Northern Ireland will go to the polls on Thursday in an election that could fundamentally alter the political landscape in the North.

Polling suggests Sinn Féin is on course to secure the greatest number of seats in the Stormont Assembly and therefore the position of First Minister. It would be the first time in Northern Ireland’s history for a nationalist party to hold the position.

However, there is continuing uncertainty over whether an Executive will be formed post-election and whether the DUP would take the role of Deputy First Minister alongside a Sinn Féin First Minister.

If this logjam cannot be resolved the North faces a long period of instability which could leave it without a fully functioning government for up to 24 weeks and, potentially, lead to another election.

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Both the Irish and British governments have emphasised their support for the North’s power-sharing institutions and have urged the parties to form an Executive as quickly as possible after the vote.

Northern Ireland has been without a First or Deputy First Minister since February, when then first minister, Paul Givan of the DUP, resigned as part of his party's protest against the Northern Ireland protocol, which is opposed by unionist parties.

As it is a joint office, Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill also lost her position as deputy first minister and while other ministers have remained in office, they have been unable to take any significant decisions which would require executive sign-off.

The DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson has so far declined to confirm if his party would go back into the Executive alongside a Sinn Féin First Minister, which has been condemned by Sinn Féin and other parties,and by Taoiseach Micheál Martin , as undemocratic.

Legislation to unilaterally suspend parts of the protocol, which it had been indicated would be unveiled in the queen’s speech next week, might have proved a route back in for the DUP, though the Northern Secretary appeared to step back from this in an interview on Wednesday night.

In an election campaign which has generally been characterised as lacklustre and low-key, all parties have sought to emphasise bread-and-butter issues over constitutional ones, with a focus on the cost-of-living crisis and the need to reform the health service.

Sinn Féin in particular has given a careful performance, its strategy to avoid any crisis or controversy which might disrupt its lead in the polls and has played down the question of a united Ireland in order to broaden its appeal.

By contrast, the DUP has sought to emphasise the "divisive border poll" which it maintains would be the consequence of a Sinn Féin first minister and has made its traditional appeal to unionist unity, calling on voters to maximise "pro-union" transfers which will be key, particularly from the hardline Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV).

In the middle ground, Alliance is expected to do well - a dream poll result for the party earlier this week put it in joint second place alongside the DUP - and is reflective of the growing number of people in Northern Ireland who do not define themselves primarily as unionist or nationalist.

The UUP has sought to present itself as an alternative version of unionism, not least by taking a distinct stance on the protocol, while the SDLP hopes to pick up seats thanks to high-profile candidates in constituencies such as Strangford and Belfast West.

According to the Northern Ireland Electoral Office, 1,373,731 people are eligible to vote in Thursday's election - an increase of 119,022 compared to the last election five years ago.

Voters will elect a total of 90 Assembly members (MLAs) - five in each of the 18 constituencies - using the single transferable vote system, a form of proportional representation.

Polling stations open at 7am and close at 10pm. Counting will begin on Friday morning, with the first results expected around teatime.

In the last Assembly election in 2017, out of the five main parties the DUP won 28 seats, Sinn Féin 27, the SDLP 12, UUP 10 and Alliance 8.

Prediction: Sinn Féin 27, DUP 24, Alliance 12, SDLP 12, UUP 9; Greens 2; Independents 2; TUV 1; People Before Profit 1.