The DUP and Sinn Fein are neck and neck in the battle to be Northern Ireland’s biggest political party, an exclusive opinion poll for the Belfast Telegraph shows.
With some individual constituency results still too close to call, the DUP has a 26% overall vote share and Sinn Fein is on 25%.
The poll represents a potential blow to the Ulster Unionists and Conservatives tie-up — with their projected share of the vote just 13%.
That result, should it become a reality when the actual election takes place later this week, is almost 5% below the UUP’s share of the vote in 2005 (17.7%) and would almost certainly spell the end for the two-party experiment.
But Ulster Unionist leader Sir Reg Empey still stands a chance of ousting the DUP’s Rev William McCrea in the cockpit South Antrim constituency fight.
The DUP's 26% figure comes despite it standing aside in North Down and Fermanagh/South Tyrone, while Sinn Fein pulled out of the race in South Belfast.
A separate poll featured in today’s Business Telegraph also shows a majority of business leaders prefer a Conservative Party victory.
Tory leader David Cameron is due to fly into the province today to give the joint venture between his party and the UUP a final boost.
The agreed Fermanagh/South Tyrone candidate, independent Rodney Connor — who has said he will take the Conservative whip unless it is against the interests of his constituency — is running neck and neck with Sinn Fein’s Michelle Gildernew, on 44% and 43% respectively, the results indicate.
Today’s poll also signals that Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister is eight points behind the DUP’s Ian Paisley jnr in North Antrim — arguably too big a gap to close at this stage of the election.
But Mr Allister’s party would appear to be on course for at least five seats in next year’s Assembly elections.
New SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie is maintaining her party’s vote share on 17% — compared to 17.5% in 2005 — which will fuel speculation on whether the party’s decline has finally levelled out.
According to the Belfast Telegraph/Inform Communications poll, Ms Ritchie is also on course to win her own personal battle in South Down against Sinn Fein's Caitriona Ruane.
Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams is predictably comfortable once again in West Belfast.
And the DUP will be buoyed by the poll giving its First Minister leader Peter Robinson a strong lead in east Belfast, with Alliance and the UUP/Tories vying for second place.
Overall, the DUP and Sinn Fein appear to be consolidating their positions in relation to their respective communities in the pre-election poll — following a trend over the last three elections in the province.
But Sinn Fein topped the poll for the first time in last year’s European Parliament race and, given the fragmentation in the unionist bloc, between the DUP, the Ulster Unionists and Traditional Unionist Voice, the republican party could be on course to see Martin McGuinness become First Minister.
In the last Westminster battle in 2005, the vote share-out gap between the DUP and Sinn Fein was more than 7% — with the DUP on 33.7 % and Sinn Fein on 24.3 %.
Then the European elections last June saw Sinn Fein’s Bairbre de Brun take a 26% share against 18.2% for the DUP’s Diane Dodds, with Ulster Unionist victor Jim Nicholson on 17% and TUV leader Jim Allister on just over 13%.