Counting begins for Northern Ireland's three European parliament seats

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By David Young, Press Association and Q Radio News

Counting has begun in the race for Northern Ireland's three European Parliament seats.

Eleven candidates were on the ballot paper in Thursday's election. Votes were sorted and verified on Friday ahead of today's count.

Despite the intense focus on Northern Ireland in the Brexit debate, the turnout of 45.14% is down more than 6% from the 2014 election.

It would represent a seismic political shock if the two largest parties in the region - the pro-Brexit DUP and anti-Brexit Sinn Fein - failed to hold their respective seats.

The Ulster Unionists could be facing a fight to retain the third seat. Former Stormont minister Danny Kennedy stood as the party's candidate following the retirement of long-serving MEP Jim Nicholson.

The UUP campaigned for Remain in 2016, but the party now advocates for Brexit - insisting the result of the referendum must be respected.

Northern Ireland voted 56% to stay in the EU three years ago, so the pro-European SDLP and Alliance Party are both confident they can wrest the seat from the UUP - a result that would see the region return two Remainers and one Leaver.

Alliance leader Naomi Long is aiming to build on the momentum of a successful local council election for the party earlier this month, while SDLP leader Colum Eastwood is hoping to win back a seat former leader John Hume held for 25 years.

Sinn Fein's Martina Anderson topped the poll in 2014 and will be hoping to repeat the feat after what has been a disappointing electoral performance for the republican party south of the border, both at European and council level.

The DUP's Diane Dodds will also be confident of retaining a seat she has held since 2009.

Counting is taking place at the Meadowbank Sports Arena in Magherafelt, Co Londonderry. It started a day later than the rest of the UK, due to historic reticence to count on Sundays in Northern Ireland.

Other candidates in the race are Green Party leader Clare Bailey, Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister, Conservative Amandeep Bhogal, Ukip's Robert Hill and independents Neil McCann and Jane Morrice.

Q Radio will have the latest on the count throughout the day with a special late new broadcast until 10pm. 

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