Belfast Telegraph

Unionists to lose out as Stormont elections boost nationalists

The Stormont election is set to deliver a significant boost to Irish nationalism at the expense of unionists.

Sinn Fein's vote has surged and the republicans could come within a seat or two of drawing level with the DUP - a party that came into the snap election holding 10 more seats.

Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt announced his resignation after his party suffered losses in a poll he predicted would deliver big gains.

Whatever the final shakedown when the counts conclude on Saturday, unionist representatives are unlikely to hold a symbolic overall majority in the slimmed-down Assembly chamber. They are still set to secure more seats than nationalists and republicans - given the number of cross-community Assembly members - but the gap will have narrowed sharply.

While Mr Nesbitt held his Assembly seat, other high-profile MLAs were not so lucky.

The SDLP's Alex Attwood, the UUP's Danny Kennedy, and the DUP's Nelson McCausland and Lord Morrow were four former Executive ministers who failed to secure a return to a Stormont legislature that is being cut from 108 to 90 members.

Away from Mr Nesbitt's dramatic announcement, the story of the election has been the surge in support for Sinn Fein.

The republican party came extremely close to securing more first preference votes than the long-time largest party, the DUP.

While the DUP saw its vote dip, the travails of the UUP means it is still set to reaffirm its position as the main voice of unionism .

Party insiders will take some solace from that, given so much of the election campaign was focused on the party's handling of a botched green energy scheme.

With the UUP failing to make any ground on the DUP, former TV anchor Mr Nesbitt fell on his sword.

His campaign pledge to transfer a second preference vote to the nationalist SDLP appears to have been his undoing, with unionist voters clearly not keen on him voicing support for any candidate who favoured a united Ireland.

Indicating that he will remain in position while his successor is found, Mr Nesbitt said it had been an "absolute honour" to lead the party.

"In pure terms, the buck stops here," he said.

He said his real regret was that Northern Ireland society appeared to have emerged from the election more polarised.

Mr Nesbitt said the electorate had rejected his hope for a post-sectarian vote.

"We will get there," he said. "Some day Northern Ireland will vote as a normal democracy. We will vote in a post-sectarian election, but it's now clear it will not happen during the duration of my political career."

Mr Nesbitt will remain a Strangford MLA.

Sinn Fein's northern leader Michelle O'Neill said: "I think it's a brilliant day for equality, I think it's a great day for democracy.

"I want to particularly commend all of our candidates that have been elected.

"The vote has increased. I think that is because people knew that action needed to be taken, they have had their say, we now need to get down to the business of fixing what's wrong and delivering for all citizens."

The poll was forced after Sinn Fein pulled the plug on the powersharing institutions in protest at DUP first minister Arlene Foster's handling of the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) - an error-ridden scheme that left Stormont facing a potential overspend of almost £500 million.

The campaign exposed other major policy disputes between the parties.

After being elected in her Fermanagh and South Tyrone constituency, Mrs Foster said: "I think it's very clear that was absolutely not about RHI. It may have been the excuse but it certainly wasn't the cause of the election.

"The cause of the election was Sinn Fein and republicanism wanting to rerun the election, they have mobilised their vote in a very effective way.

"I am pleased that the DUP has come out as the largest party in terms of votes. It is very clear in terms of unionism that it is the Democratic Unionist Party that speaks for unionism."

She added: "I do hope devolution will get back up and running as quickly as possible."

The DUP and Sinn Fein will have three weeks to resolve their multiple differences and form a new administration.

The re-imposition of direct rule from London is on the cards if the post-election talks fail.

If the three-week post-election deadline passes, Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire is legally obliged to call yet another election.

In those circumstances, the Government may pass emergency legislation to suspend devolution for the first time in 10 years ahead of more lengthy negotiations.

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