Sinn Féin was on the brink of making history on Friday as the first nationalist party to hold the position of first minister in the North.
The party is expected to win the greatest number of seats in the Assembly, the first time a nationalist party would be the largest party since the creation of Northern Ireland more than 100 years ago.
It polled a total of 250,388 first-preference votes compared with the DUP on 184,002, an increase of 1 per cent bringing its vote share to 29 per cent, compared with the DUP which lost almost seven per cent to take it to 21 per cent.
Speaking to the BBC, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald hailed the significance of her party’s victory, saying it was “not simply symbolic that we are, it now seems, on the cusp of a nationalist or a republican leading the Executive, being the first minister in the North.
“It’s significant because it’s a moment of equality. It says there’s no job that’s beyond anybody’s reach.”
She also said that as first minister Michelle O’Neill, the Sinn Féin deputy leader, would “lead for everybody” and would engage with unionists and “work together” to prepare for a reunified Ireland.
Counting has now been suspended for the night at all count centres and will resume on Saturday at 9am. At the close of play just over half of the 90 seats have been filled. Sinn Féin is on 18 seats, the DUP on 12, Alliance on eight, the UUP on four, SDLP on three and others on two.
Four constituencies have concluded their counts – Newry and Armagh, East Antrim, South Antrim and Lagan Valley.
Liveblog: follow the latest updates from count centres here.
The other big winner was the Alliance Party, which party sources indicated on Friday was expected to add at least five seats to its 2017 tally of eight.
The anti-Agreement unionist party the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) also polled strongly in some constituencies, which damaged the DUP vote, but it was unclear last night if it would take more than its existing seat belonging to the party leader, Jim Allister.
Last night the Government urged the DUP to return to the Executive amid serious doubts over whether there will be a functioning Assembly after the election.
The then DUP first minister, Paul Givan, resigned in February as part of his party's protest against the Northern Ireland protocol – which it opposed – which also removed Sinn Féin's Ms O'Neill from her role as deputy first minister and severely restricted the powers of the Executive.
DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson, who topped the poll in his constituency of Lagan Valley, indicated yesterday there would be no swift resolution to the impasse.
He told RTÉ News that unless the UK government takes action in regard to the Northern Ireland protocol – which is opposed by unionists – he would not nominate ministers to the Executive.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin said there was an “obligation on everybody elected to take their seats in the assembly and to form an Executive”.
Also speaking on RTÉ, Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said he expected it would be “difficult” to form an Executive and it could take months for the issues to be resolved.
Mr Coveney said that for a number of years there had been “a lot of polarisation on certain issues within Northern Ireland politics” and there was the “added complication now of a potential change, if you like, in the pecking order, in terms of the possibility of the nationalist party having the highest percentage of the vote and the highest number of seats”.
The Minister suggested brokering an agreement between the parties could be more difficult than following the collapse of the Assembly in 2017.
“The issues we had to deal with weren’t as complicated as these ones,” he said. “We have got a lot to do this summer.”
The percentage vote share for both the Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP declined. The SDLP's deputy leader and the North's outgoing minister for infrastructure, Nichola Mallon, was reported to be under threat in north Belfast, while the Ulster Unionist leader Doug Beattie rejected the suggestion he was also in danger in Upper Bann.
‘All to play for’
Earlier on Friday, DUP leader Mr Donaldson refused to say whether he will return to Stormont after he was elected as MLA for Lagan Valley following the first count.
Speaking after the result, Mr Donaldson insisted it was “all to play for” in terms of the final result.
He secured 12,626 votes and said one of the messages from the election was that a “divided unionism does not win votes”.
When asked if he will return to the Assembly, he said: “Let’s see what final outcome is.
“There is all to play for. The DUP is very much in the game at the moment. I have made it clear we need the government to take decisive action on the protocol. Words are not enough.”
He added: “In terms of the overall picture it is much too early to say what the final outcome might be.
“I think it is going to be very tight at the end as to who will emerge as the largest party.”
Ms O'Neill, Sinn Féin vice-president, was surrounded by party colleagues and supporters as the result of her re-election was announced in the Magherafelt count centre.
She received 10,845 first preference votes and the result was greeted by large cheers in the count centre.
Speaking to reporters shortly before her election was announced, Ms O’Neill said she was “very grateful” to be with the people of Mid-Ulster.
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 that Sinn Féin wanted to “together work in partnership with others”.
“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.”
Ms Long, speaking in Belfast, dedicated her victory to her father-in-law. “It’s been a good day so far for Alliance and obviously it’s been a good day for me personally in East Belfast, and also for Peter McReynolds, and we expect that we will hold the two seats there.
“It’s been quite an emotional election campaign for me. I lost my father-in-law in the last few weeks, and we buried him yesterday.
“I just want to dedicate this win to him, because without family I could not do what I do, and without their support I would not be where I am.
“I am just absolutely thrilled that I’ve polled so well and I really look forward to later on today and seeing all my colleagues bringing it home.”
Earlier on Friday, the first MLA elected to the Stormont Assembly declared an Alliance Party surge.
Kellie Armstrong was elected for the Strangford constituency on the first stage of the count with 7,015 votes.
Congratulated by party leader, Ms Long, Ms Armstrong said it was the start of a surge for the party in the Assembly elections.
The party's good fortune continued when it gained two seats in the East Antrim constituency for the first time.
Incumbent Stewart Dickson and running mate Danny Donnelly were elected on the fifth count in what is a solidly unionist area.
Alex Easton, formerly of the DUP, topped the poll in North Down with 9,568 votes and insisted he will continue his “journey” as an Independent unionist candidate.
Mr Easton from the North Down constituency resigned from the DUP last summer and there was intense speculation he would return to the party in the event of an Assembly victory to prevent Sinn Féin becoming the largest party.
Responding to media queries yesterday about such a move – he has eight days to make a decision – Mr Easton said: “I will continue my journey as a unionist candidate and MLA for North Down.
“I enjoy serving my constituency. I like delivering on the ground.
“I won the seat on the hard work that I do and I will be representing North Down as an independent MLA.”
Earlier this year, Mr Easton said he quit the DUP as he didn’t feel valued and was only “rolled out for elections”.
Northern Ireland protocol
The Northern Ireland protocol has cast a long shadow over the election campaign, following the resignation of Mr Givan in February in an effort to force the UK Government to act over the post-Brexit trading arrangements.
This action left the Executive unable to fully function.
While ministers remained in post, they were restricted in the actions they could take. Unionists object to the additional checks on goods arriving in Northern Ireland from Britain as a border in the Irish Sea.
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood appeared to play down expectations for his party as he arrived at Magherafelt on Friday.
He said that voters may have “lent” their vote to Sinn Féin. “It’s going to be a long day and maybe a long night as well,” he said.
“I think there has been a big vote for Sinn Féin on the nationalist side.
“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 Féin their vote.”
But Mr Eastwood said votes were still being counted. “It is going to be tough for us, because so many people have wanted to send a message to the DUP that nationalists shouldn’t be locked out of the top position,” he said.
Asked about the elections in Northern Ireland, UK prime minister Boris Johnson said “the most important thing is that we continue to support the balance of the Good Friday Agreement across all communities in Northern Ireland”.
Speaking during a visit to a school in his constituency of Uxbridge and South Ruislip, he was asked by reporters about the possibility of a majority of people in Northern Ireland voting for parties that support the current trading arrangements with the EU, and if he will work with those parties to make the Northern Ireland Protocol work.
Mr Johnson said: “The most important thing is that we continue to support the balance of the Good Friday Agreement across all communities in Northern Ireland. That’s what we’re going to do.
“And whatever arrangements we have, they have got to have cross-community support, that’s what the Good Friday Agreement is all about, that’s what the Government is going to do.
“But as for the rest, we’ll have to wait and see what the results are in Northern Ireland.” – Additional reporting PA