Voting to the election for the new Belfast Assembly got underway across the Six Counties this Wednesday morning.

There are 108 seats in the assembly across 18 constituencies, and nearly 250 candidates have entered the election race. The assembly election uses the proportional representation, single transferable vote method.

There was consternation for political activists as the North’s always controversial Electoral Office refused, for the first time, to divulge the turnout for individual voting stations.

Polling was reported to be slow by party canvassers as stations opened. Voting continues until 10pm tonight, with some predictions that turn-out will pick up.

Each constituency count will begin tomorrow and will continue until it ends either that evening or the following day.

More than 19,000 postal votes have been issued - down by 30 per cent of the combined general and council elections in 2005.

Sinn Féin is preparing to taxi fans of Glasgow Celtic from the pubs to the polls today, concerned that the lure of Celtic’s crucial second leg soccer match against AC Milan will affect the turnout of their supporters

It is planning to use Belfast’s famous fleet of black taxis to ensure that Celtic fans can go to the polling station without missing out on the match.

The taxi drivers, some of whom are former IRA prisoners, will call round to the pubs before the 7.45pm kick-off and even at half time.

A Sinn Féin spokesman confirmed that the party was putting special plans in place to ensure a high voter turnout.

“We will be doing our best job on the day to make sure everyone gets out to vote.”

Meanwhile, the 26-County Taoiseach has warned the political parties in the North that the Dublin and London governments have already agreed a blueprint for running the Six Counties jointly if there is no agreement on a powersharing executive by the end of this month.

Speaking at a meeting of the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body in Dublin, Mr Ahern said that following on from the election today, an executive must be formed on March 26th.

“This is the end of the line. The two governments have made this abundantly clear. We have painstakingly, patiently and honourably followed and delivered, step by step, on the St Andrews Agreement. It would be unconscionable and deeply regrettable if this agreed deadline was missed and if the opportunity to govern was not taken.

“Patience has already been stretched and I do not believe that the people would take kindly to further delay. The war is over. The key issues are sorted. All must take responsibility in government for building and consolidating the peace,” said Mr Ahern.

* Two nationalist candidates standing in the Assembly election have been sent bullets on the eve of the election, a traditional form of unionist paramilitary intimidation.

Sinn Féin candidate Billy Leonard said he opened the package in front of his children at their home, while independent republican candidate Davy Hyland also received a bullet in the post.

* Regular updates on the progress of the election counts will be carried here as usual from Thursday afternoon, when the first results will come in, until Friday afternoon, when the counting should be completed.

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