BELFAST (Reuters) - Turnout was higher among Irish nationalist voters than pro-British unionists in elections in Northern Ireland on Thursday, an online exit poll indicated, but it was unclear if it would be enough to shift the balance of power in the British province.
Nationalists who favor a united Ireland and unionists who want Northern Ireland to remain British are jostling for position ahead of talks on Britain's exit from the European Union, which is set to determine the province's political and economic future.
Opinion polls ahead of the election indicated that the pro-British Democratic Unionist Party would lose votes but remain the largest party, followed by Irish nationalists Sinn Fein.
An online exit poll by Lucid Talk found that turnout appeared to be 2-3 percent higher among nationalist voters compared to an election year ago while turnout for unionist voters was unchanged.
"People seem to be more engaged on the Republican side to come out and vote," said Bill White, managing director at Lucid Talk. "That differential turnout could come into play when last seats are in play."
While analysts say Sinn Fein is unlikely to become the largest party for the first time - an outcome that would turn Northern Ireland politics on its head - a strong showing could help them secure concessions from the DUP.
Sinn Fein is insisting that DUP leader Arlene Foster step aside before it will consider re-entering government. While the DUP have rejected this outright, a poor result might force her to step down.
The largest unionist and nationalist parties after the election will have three weeks to form a power-sharing government to avoid devolved power returning to the British parliament at Westminster for the first time in a decade.
While no one predicts the impasse will bring a return to the violence that killed 3,600 people in the three decades before a 1998 peace agreement, some are warning of a deterioration in community relations coupled with government paralysis as Brexit talks determine the province's political and economic future.
Sinn Fein brought on the election by collapsing the power-sharing government in January over the role of the DUP in a scandal over heating subsidies that could cost the state 500 million pounds. The DUP deny wrongdoing.
(Reporting by Ian Graham and Conor Humphries; Editing by Angus MacSwan)