Political leaders cast their ballots as voting continues in Northern Ireland

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Polling Stations close at 10pm this evening

David Young and Jonathan McCambridge (PA)

Northern Ireland’s political leaders have been among those casting their ballots as voting continues in a General Election involving several constituency battles that remain too close to call.

A total of 136 candidates are standing in the region’s 18 constituencies.

DUP leader Gavin Robinson and his wife Lindsay voted in east Belfast shortly after 9am while UUP leader Doug Beattie cast his ballot in Portadown minutes earlier.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood cast his vote in his Foyle constituency shortly before 11am, while Alliance leader Naomi Long and her husband Michael voted in east Belfast a short time later.

All eyes will be on the race for the greatest number of seats, with the potential of Sinn Fein cementing its position as the largest party in Northern Ireland, having come out on top in the last Assembly and local council polls.

Sinn Fein, which ran a relatively low-key campaign, could secure first place by retaining the seven seats it already holds, if the DUP drops down from the eight seats it won in 2019.

The two main parties traded relatively few hard blows during the last six weeks, reflective of the fact that relations between them have been fairly good in the five months since they resumed joint leadership of Stormont’s restored devolved coalition government.

While most of the republican party’s seats are safe bets, it will face the usual arm wrestle to hold off the challenge of unionists in the ever-close Fermanagh and South Tyrone race.

In that constituency, former Royal College of Nursing general secretary Pat Cullen, who led nurses across the UK in strike action last year, is up against Ulster Unionist councillor Diana Armstrong.

The DUP is under pressure in a number of constituencies, most significantly in East Belfast where Mr Robinson is involved in a high-stakes contest with Alliance Party leader Ms Long.

Mr Robinson’s elevation to the leadership of his party came after the DUP suffered a seismic shock when former leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson quit after he was charged with a range of historical sexual offences in March – charges he denies.

Apart from the sudden departure of Donaldson from the political stage, the DUP has also been under fire from unionist rivals amid claims it oversold a Government package of measures on post-Brexit trading arrangements that the party used to justify the end of its two-year boycott on devolution at Stormont in January.

Defeat for Mr Robinson would be likely to raise questions about his fledgling leadership of the DUP, while a loss for Ms Long would prompt some to ask whether the Alliance Party’s surge of recent years has begun to subside.

Mr Robinson greeted waiting media as he arrived at the Elim church polling station on Thursday morning.

“Fresh and well you’re looking,” he said.

Leaving the polling station, the DUP leader said it was good to have voted before giving a thumbs-up to photographers.

The cross-community Alliance Party is walking a tightrope between having a really good night or a very disappointing one.

It is involved in three razor-edge fights where it is in serious contention for seats.

The party goes into the election with one seat, deputy leader Stephen Farry’s in North Down.

Mr Farry has been involved in a tough battle to hold that seat while his party is also hoping that Ms Long prevails in East Belfast and Sorcha Eastwood defeats the DUP in Lagan Valley, in the seat vacated by long-standing MP Donaldson.

While three victories could be secured, three losses would sting heavily for a party that has been on the electoral march in recent years.

Alliance leader Ms Long brought her dog Daisy to the polling station at St Colmcille’s parochial hall in east Belfast.

Asked if she felt confident, Ms Long told reporters: “I’m feeling relaxed, we’ll see. Confidence is never a good thing, I’m just relaxed.”

Along with her husband Michael, they had to shelter for several minutes inside the polling station before leaving due to the intensity of a sudden downpour outside.

The Ulster Unionists were without an MP in the last parliament and the party is convinced that South Antrim represents its best opportunity of a return to the green benches at Westminster.

Former UUP leader Robin Swann, whose profile soared when he led Northern Ireland’s fight against the Covid pandemic as Stormont health minister, is trying to win that seat from the DUP’s Paul Girvan.

UUP leader Mr Beattie voted at Seagoe Primary School in Portadown.

He greeted waiting media and posed for photographs as he arrived at the polling station.

“It is an important day, it is a day for the people to cast their votes,” he said.

“We have run a good campaign.”

Success for the SDLP would be the retention of the two seats held in the last parliament by its leader, Mr Eastwood, and deputy leader, Claire Hanna.

Both are tipped for victory – in Foyle and South Belfast and Mid Down respectively – albeit with the prospect of returning with reduced majorities.

Mr Eastwood did not speak to the media after voting at the Model Primary School in Londonderry but posed for selfies with supporters and exchanged a hug with party MLA Mark Durkan.

The TUV, which is an arch critic of the DUP’s decision to drop its protest boycott on devolution, did not stand in the last election.

While its entry into the fray this time round is highly unlikely to deliver it any seats, the votes it could potentially take from DUP candidates could have major implications in some of the closest battleground seats.

However, the TUV campaign suffered a major blow last month when Reform UK leader Nigel Farage personally endorsed two DUP election candidates, despite his party having an official electoral alliance with the TUV in Northern Ireland.

That has led to a highly unusual situation in TUV leader Jim Allister’s own North Antrim constituency, where he is running on a joint TUV-Reform UK platform, even though Mr Farage has personally backed the DUP candidate in that area, Ian Paisley

A member of the polling station team hangs a sign at the Agape Centre in south Belfast )photo by PA)

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