Polls opened at 0700 GMT, marking the 10th time since Northern Ireland's 1.1 million-strong electorate has been called to vote since the April 1998 Good Friday peace accord.

 

Scant coverage

 

The accord largely ended 30 years of "the Troubles" between Protestant and Catholic communities.

 

"Until we are satisfied that Sinn Fein are a democratic political party, we will not be sitting down in government with them"

Gregory Campbell, Democratic Unionist Party MP

They are the Ulster Unionists, a conservative, Protestant party, and the Social Democratic and Labour Party, who draw their support from Catholics and nationalists, are on course to share the majority of the remaining seats.

 

Polling day received little coverage in the Belfast Telegraph and the Irish News, with both main regional dailies citing a quiet campaign.

 

London and Dublin says the two leading parties are meant to form a semi-autonomous executive by March 26.

 

If no executive is formed the assembly will be dissolved and Northern Ireland will be governed indefinitely from London, with the participation of Dublin.

 

However, differences between the two organisations are threatening prospects for a deal.

 

"Until we are satisfied that Sinn Fein are a democratic political party, we will not be sitting down in government with them," said Gregory Campbell, a DUP member of parliament, on BBC television on Tuesday.

 

"Let's keep turning the screw until we get them where we need them to be. But I don't see that they can make up the ground between now and March 26," he said.

 

Settlement 'block' bid

 

Gerry Adams, Sinn Fein president, accused the DUP of blocking the path to a settlement.

 

"Either we go back to conflict, the blood, the tears we've all been through, or we go forward and build a new future for the people of Ireland," he said.

 

"I just wish that ordinary Unionist voters would cop on to [realise] what the DUP are playing at."

 

Wednesday's poll is the third to elect the 108 members of the Northern Ireland assembly.

 

The assembly has been suspended since 2002, after spy-ring allegations against the Irish Republican Army [IRA], the miliary wing of Sinn Fein.