Sinn Fein is on course for its best ever result in a Northern Ireland Assembly election after receiving the most first-preference votes, as counting resumed on Saturday morning.
Sinn Fein currently has 18 seats, while the DUP have 12, the Alliance Party eight, the Ulster Unionists (UUP) four and the SDLP on three, with one seat going to TUV leader Jim Allister and one to independent unionist Alex Easton.
Sinn Fein received 250,388 first preferences, compared with the 184,002 returned for the DUP and 116,681 for the Alliance Party.
This means that it received 29 per cent of first preference votes, compared with 21.3 per cent for the DUP, 13.5 per cent for Alliance, 11.2 per cent for the UUP and 9.1 per cent for the SDLP.
Sinn Fein’s vice president Michelle O’Neill, on course to be the first nationalist first minister, was elected on the first count in Mid Ulster, with Alliance leader Naomi Long topping the poll in East Belfast.
Ms O’Neill, surrounded by party colleagues and supporters as the result was announced in the Magherafelt count centre, said Sinn Fein wanted to “together work in partnership with others”.
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, elected on the first count in Lagan Valley, remained defiant. “I think it is going to be very tight at the end as to who will emerge as the largest party,” he said.
He added: “One of the key messages for me is that unionism simply can’t afford the divisions that exist.”
DUP MP Sammy Wilson warned earlier that his party would not re-enter the Stormont executive without action by Boris Johnson’s government to ditch Northern Ireland Protocol checks.
“If there’s no legislation in the Queen’s Speech and no plans to deal with the protocol then we’ve made it very clear the assembly can’t function if the poison of the protocol is still there,” he said.
But Sinn Fein MP John Finucane said people were more concerned about bread-and-butter issues. He said: “I believe the DUP during the campaign outlined a five-point plan as to how they were going to grow our economy, fix our health service and help working families. I don’t see how that is possible without an executive.”
Cabinet minister Nadhim Zahawi restated the government’s position that all options for dealing with the protocol remain on the table.
The government is hoping the outcome of the election – which saw Irish nationalists’ Sinn Fein emerge as the largest party – will persuade Brussels the checks must be dropped to restore power-sharing arrangements.
The education secretary told Sky News: “The important thing is to try and make sure we work with the parties in Northern Ireland, but also with the European Commission to make sure that we leave no stone unturned to try and make it work.”
The first MLA elected to the Stormont Assembly pointed to a major surge for the Alliance Party, the only non-unionist, non-nationalist party in the contest.
Kellie Armstrong was elected for the Strangford constituency on the first stage of the count with 7,015 votes. Congratulated by Alliance leader Naomi Long, Ms Armstrong said it was the start of a breakthrough for the party.
“I’m absolutely delighted,” Ms Armstrong said. “I’ve held back using the word surge until now but I think I’m feeling it now. I’m absolutely delighted to top the poll.”
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood play downed expectations for his nationalist party, saying voters may have “lent” their vote to Sinn Fein.
“It’s going to be a long day and maybe a long night as well,” he said on Friday. “I think there has been a big vote for Sinn Fein on the nationalist side. People decided to send a very clear message that nationalists should not be locked out of the first minister position.”