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Election under cloud of violence


Northern Ireland goes to the polls on Thursday

Northern Ireland goes to the polls on Thursday

Northern Ireland goes to the polls on Thursday

Northern Ireland goes to the polls on Thursday in an election set to solidify the power-sharing institutions born out of the peace process.

The outgoing administration led by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Fein was the first of its kind to last the full term in the region.

But in an attempt to derail the political system, dissident republican groups opposed to the peace process have stepped up violence during the election campaign.

Their attacks culminated in last month's murder of policeman Ronan Kerr in Omagh, Co Tyrone. He was killed when a booby-trap bomb exploded under his car. Politicians and community leaders from across the religious divide united in the aftermath of the murder.

In the latest development, the 25-year-old policeman's family has urged voters to come out in strength and cast their ballots in support of peace.

Polling stations across the 18 constituencies open at 7am and close at 10pm, with each area electing six members to the 108-member legislature. Voters will also elect members to the 26 local authorities in Northern Ireland and vote on the UK-wide referendum on the Alternative Vote electoral system.

In the 2007 Assembly election the DUP took 36 seats, Sinn Fein 28, the Ulster Unionists 18, the SDLP 16 and Alliance seven.

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The campaign has been one of the most low key in living memory, despite the violence of extremists.

But economic issues have been of greater concern than ever before because of the international economic crisis, the decline of the southern Irish economy and the £4 billion in cuts imposed on the Stormont purse by Westminster.

Behind the scenes however the big players in unionism and nationalism still have to resolve deadlock over key issues, such as the downsizing of Northern Ireland's 26 councils, the handling of Orange Order parades, the protection of the Irish language, plus the delicate task of finally deciding how the Assembly's Justice Ministry will be assigned.

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