DUP badly stung as republicans triumph in election, Alliance also celebrating, but SDLP and UUP both stunned by poor showing
Sinn Fein is set to romp home far ahead of the DUP in the Assembly election with Michelle O’Neill becoming First Minister if a new Executive is formed.
Despite speculation the race to be Stormont’s biggest party could be close, Sinn Fein will win at least 27 seats, with the party in contention for two more in Upper Bann and East Londonderry.
With the DUP losing MLAs in Strangford and North Down, it cannot catch its republican rival.
The day saw mixed fortunes for the five main parties, with the DUP worst hit. On 21%, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson’s party was down seven percentage points from the 2017 Assembly election.
It was also a poor election for the SDLP. On just 9%, Colum Eastwood’s party was down three percentage points.
There was no ‘Beattie bounce’ for the Ulster Unionists on 11% — a two percentage points fall — as the UUP leader battled to hold onto his Upper Bann seat.
He took only 9% of the vote, but former Health Minister Robin Swann topped the poll in North Antrim on 19%.
Whereas the UUP will be carrying out a post-mortem, Alliance will be celebrating.
Naomi Long’s party won 13.5% — up 4.5 percentage points on its vote share last time, although less than the party has secured in other recent elections. Winning an 8% vote, TUV almost trebled its 2017 performance, but a question mark hung over whether Jim Allister would be returned with other party MLAs to Stormont.
With counting continuing in Strangford, Stephen Cooper was in the running to take the last seat for TUV.
The party performed very strongly across many constituencies including South Antrim (10%), West Tyrone (9%), East Antrim (9%), Newry and Armagh (9%) and Upper Bann (8%).
It was a poor election for the Green Party with Rachel Woods losing her seat in North Down, Brian Smyth missing out in East Belfast, and Clare Bailey fighting for her seat in South Belfast.
If the Green leader loses, it will leave the party without any representation in Stormont.
Among the most high-profile eliminations so far have been the DUP’s Peter Weir in Strangford, UUP stalwart Roy Beggs in East Antrim, and the SDLP’s Dolores Kelly in Upper Bann.
With counting continuing today, Sinn Fein is on course for its best Assembly election result ever.
Mr Donaldson said he was delighted with his party’s performance in Lagan Valley, where he comfortably topped the poll, but the DUP was down six percentage points.
Its leader said it was too early to comment on the overall picture. “I think it is going to be very tight at the end as to who will emerge as the largest party,” he said.
“One of the key messages for me is that unionism simply can’t afford the divisions that exist.”
He failed to say if he would resign as a MP to sit in Stormont, adding that party officers would meet in the coming days to discuss the way forward.
There is increasing speculation he will not enter an Executive under a Sinn Fein First Minister and that a party colleague will be co-opted into his Assembly seat.
Several DUP figures, including Sammy Wilson, warned there could be no political movement at Stormont until the issue of the Brexit protocol was addressed.
“I’ll tell you one thing, if there’s no legislation in the Queen’s Speech and no plans to deal with (it) then we’ve made it very clear the Assembly can’t function if the poison of the protocol is still there,” he said.
The MP added some of the party’s lost seats were expected and some were not: “We can’t control how the vote in the nationalist community has split.
“On the nationalist side, voters have coalesced around Sinn Fein, and that’s why the SDLP vote has fallen, whereas on the unionist side people still believe it’s okay to indulge their egos and pursue their selfish agenda and have been happy to see the vote fragmented.”
Ms O’Neill was surrounded by cheering supporters as she was elected in Mid Ulster on the first count. Asked about the possibility of her taking the First Minister role, she said: “It is very early to say, let’s get all the votes counted. I feel very positive.”
She said Sinn Fein wanted to “together work in partnership with others”, adding: “That is the only way we will achieve much, much more for people here, whether in terms of the cost of living crisis or trying to fix our health service.”
Mr Eastwood said in some areas his party’s supporters may have “lent their votes to Sinn Fein”.
“I think there has been a big vote for Sinn Fein on the nationalist side,” he said.
“People decided to send a very clear message that nationalists should not be locked out of the First Minister position.
“I understand that motivation and I think a lot of people have lent Sinn Fein their vote.”
With Alliance gains on the cards in North Down, South Down, Lagan Valley and South Belfast, Mrs Long, who topped the poll in East Belfast, said she was delighted with the results.
“I am just absolutely thrilled that I’ve polled so well and I really look forward to seeing all my colleagues bringing it home,” she said.