Even with the confirmation of their dominant positions, Sinn Fein and the DUP last night kept up their attack on their Ulster Unionist and SDLP rivals.
Both First Minister Peter Robinson and deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said the apparent downturn in the fortunes of the UUP and, to a seemingly lesser extent, the SDLP, was because of the “negative” role they have played in the Stormont Executive over recent months.
And they again singled out the Alliance Party, which was enjoying the prospect of several extra seats putting it within distance of a second Executive place apart from the Justice Ministry, for praise.
Both the UUP and SDLP, however, insisted it was much too early to write their respective parties off and again denounced the “cozy consensus” of the other three Executive parties.
But as counting stopped across the province last night the DUP and Sinn Fein had 28 seats — the DUP 15 and Sinn Fein 13 — while the UUP and SDLP had only four — two apiece.
As the squabbling between the parties continued through the election results, it appeared the Assembly is most likely to hold its first meeting next Thursday, when Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness will be reaffirmed in office and other ministers appointed.
Despite the widespread concern over organisation of the vote counts yesterday, both the DUP and Sinn Fein last night appeared to be on course to consolidate their control over the Assembly
Both the main unionist and republican parties — already the biggest in Stormont — were on course to hold their ground or even exceed expectations.
But the outlook for both the UUP and SDLP was more uncertain, with some candidates — among them former UUP Assembly chief whip David McNarry and his successor Fred Cobain — struggling to hang on to their seats in Strangford and North Belfast respectively.
DUP leader Peter Robinson said: “We didn't ask for a mandate from the people to enhance the standing of the Democratic Unionist Party, we asked for a mandate to keep Northern Ireland moving forward.
“Politics ebbs and flows and if you can't withstand that then you've picked the wrong career. I'm living in today and not looking over my shoulder to the past.
“It is very pleasing and rewarding to hear that right across the province our candidates are doing so well because they put a lot of work into it.”
But he said the UUP in particular might have to ask themselves why they were struggling, after both it and SDLP MLAs voted against the four-year Stormont Budget just weeks ago.
Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams said his party’s performance followed on its recent success in the Irish election when it won 14 seats in the Dail — and rounded on Ulster Unionists and the SDLP.
“I think the problem for the SDLP and the UUP is that rather than joining in the Executive, keeping their own particular identity and working with the rest of us, they tried to cast themselves very artificially as being in government and opposition at the same time. That doesn't work,” he said.
The former West Belfast MP said both the UUP and SDLP held seats in the last ministerial Executive at Stormont, but had criticised the conduct of the DUP and Sinn Fein, who were the dominant presence in the outgoing administration. The smaller parties had tried to criticise the Government, despite being part of it, and now appeared to have been punished by voters, Mr Adams added.
He also talked of the poignancy of canvassing in his old west Belfast stomping ground.
“I spent the last few days in west Belfast and quite a number of people, particularly elderly people, told me that this was the first election that they had ever voted in that my name was not on the ballot card so that was a highly emotional moment,” he said.
Fears of the turnout falling further were fuelled by reports from various constituencies — early figures included 48% in East Antrim, 57% voted in Foyle, 53% in Lagan Valley, 46% in North Down, 55% in Upper Bann and 64% in the mainly nationalist West Tyrone constituency
All are far behind figures for elections in recent years — Assembly elections had a 69.9% turnout in 1998, 63.9% in 2003 and 62.9% in 2007. Last year's General Election saw 57.6% turnout in Northern Ireland.
And late last night there was no sign of an announcement of the AV result for Northern Ireland.