A slightly higher turnout of the North’s electorate is predicted in today’s Westminster election following early reports from the polling stations.
The turnout reached over 30% by 5pm in most areas this afternoon and is predicted to reach about 66% by the time polls close tonight at 10pm, an increase of 3% over the previous turnout.
Voting began across the Six Counties at 7am, the same time as polls opened in Britain.
Unusually, there is genuine uncertainty in Britain about who might eventually emerge as Prime Minister than in any election since 1992. There is real expectation of a hung Parliament, where no party has a majority, for the first time since 1974.
A string of eve-of-election opinion polls gave David Cameron’s Conservatives a clear lead over Labour and the Liberal Democrats, but suggested that the Tories will not reach the level of support they need to claim an overall majority in the House of Commons.
One or two polls indicated that the Tories could secure a working majority with the support of unionists, a result which could precipitate a political crisis in the North.
Lfficials with the ruling Labour Party were making a last-ditch appeal to their supporters to vote tactically for the Liberal Democrats in order to keep the Conservatives from a majority. The favour was not returned by Lib Dem leader, Nick Clegg, whose popularity has soared as a result of three pre-election leadership debates.
The final newspaper polls of the campaign all put Conservatives in the lead with support ranging between 35% and 37%. The other two parties were vying for second place, with Labour apparently edging slightly ahead on 28%-29% and the Liberal Democrats on 26%-28%.
On an even swing, the figures would make the Tories the largest party, with between 268 and 294 seats in the House of Commons, but leave them short of the 326 MPs Cameron needs to lead a majority administration.
The DUP last night claimed that they were being courted by Mr Brown ahead of a possible hung parliament, publishing a letter in which the Labour leader promised to maintain the size of the subvention [grant] from Westminster to the Stormont admistration in Belfast if he remains in power.
“Dear Peter,” the letter began. “I am writing to confirm my continued commitment to the block grant for Northern Ireland for the current financial year and to confirm the financial settlement for the budget of the newly established Department of Justice.”
Meanwhile, Tory party officials said Mr Cameron was “very open” to an arrangement with the DUP, despite their existing alliance with the DUP’s main political rivals, the Ulster Unionist Party.
The Tories’ Shadow Business Secretary Ken Clarke colourfully declared yesterday that a deal with unionism would be a desperate act.
In a line set which seems set to be quoted for years to come, he said: “In the end you can always do a deal with an Ulsterman, but it’s not the way to run a modern, sophisticated society.’
It was a rare insight to the Tory view of the ‘Orange Card’ -- an expedient alliance with unionism at Westminster which, as it has done for centuries, once again be used to the disadvantage of Irish nationalists.
As polling stations close across Britain, a major exit poll at 10pm tonight should give the first indication of what the election result may hold. The first impportant ‘bellwether’ counts in Britain, which could confirm or challenge the exit poll, should become available after midnight.
Results from the count centres in the North of Ireland are set to become available around 3am, and all major developments will be published here as they become available.