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N. Irish assembly polls close

Poor turnout fears
Voters have been urged to cast their ballots amid fears of a poor turnout.

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Candidates in Northern Ireland head to the polls.
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Northern Ireland

LONDON, England (CNN) -- Vote counting has begun in the poll to elect members to the Northern Ireland Assembly, which was suspended following a breakdown in relations between loyalist and nationalist political parties.

Northern Ireland's 1.1 million electors are choosing 108 delegates to the assembly. The results of a complicated voting procedure using transferable votes will be declared Thursday.

Under Electoral Commission rules, polling stations across the province opened at 7:00 a.m. (0700 GMT) Wednesday, and closed at 10:00 p.m. (2200 GMT).

Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern and British Prime Minister Tony Blair both urged the people of Northern Ireland to make sure they use their vote amid fears of a low turnout.

The assembly was dissolved in October 2002 in a row over an alleged IRA spy ring and the power-sharing executive suspended. The province is currently under direct rule from London.

In October this year, attempts to restore power sharing failed when members of the official unionist party (UUP) refused to work with Sinn Fein, political ally of the IRA, in a row over IRA arms decommissioning.

Assembly members will be elected under a proportional representation system, with six seats up for grabs in each of 18 constituencies.

Voters will mark their ballot papers in order of preference, marking the number one against the candidate they want to see elected, the figure two against their second favorite, a three against their third favorite and so on. Later preferences will decide who wins the final seats in each constituency.

In 1998, when the power-sharing assembly was set up under that year's Good Friday Agreement, the two main loyalist and two main Irish nationalist parties dominated the voting.

On the loyalist side, the UUP won 28 seats, the more hard line Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which opposes the Good Friday Agreement, took 20 seats.

On the nationalist side, the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) won 24 seats and Sinn Fein 18. The moderate Alliance party won 6 seats, with others sharing the remaining 12.

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