Assembly election: Sinn Féin wins most seats as parties urged to form Executive

Alliance Party exceeds wildest expectations with 17 seats, a gain of nine on 2017

Sinn Féin has won the largest number of seats in the Assembly election and with it the right to nominate the party's Northern leader, Michelle O'Neill, as the First Minister of Northern Ireland – the first time in the North's history that the top position has been held by a nationalist party.

With all 90 seats declared soon after 1am on Sunday, Sinn Féin had retained all its seats to win 27. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) took 25, the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) took nine and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) returned a total of eight.

The count ended in Foyle, about 40 hours after it started, as the DUP’s Gary Middleton was finally declared the victor, after the tightest of races with UUP’s Ryan McCready.

The SDLP’s hopes of securing a third seat in the constituency – alongside Mark Durcan and Sinéad McLaughlin – failed to materialise as Sinn Féin’s vote remained strong, with Pádraig Delargy and Ciara Ferguson both taking a seat despite neither having stood for Assembly election before.

The other big success story of the election was that of the cross-community Alliance Party, which more than doubled its tally of eight in the last vote in 2017 to elect 17 MLAs this time around.

In a statement issued on Saturday night after counting was almost complete, the British secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Brandon Lewis, urged the parties to form an Executive as soon possible.

This sentiment was echoed by Taoiseach Micheál Martin who urged those elected to "deliver on their" mandate and form a Stormont Executive.

A question mark remains over whether the DUP – which resigned from the first minister position in February as part of its campaign against the Northern Ireland protocol, which is opposed by unionists – will nominate a deputy first minister when the Assembly meets next week.

Devolved government

Mr Lewis said the people of Northern Ireland had “delivered a number of messages” in the election and “were clear that they want a fully functioning devolved government in Northern Ireland, they want the issues around the protocol addressed, and that they want politics to work better”.

He said over the coming days he would meet all the party leaders and would “urge them to restore the Stormont institutions at the earliest possible moment, starting with the nomination of an Assembly speaker within eight days”.

"The government remains committed to the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement and will continue to work with the Northern Ireland parties and the Irish Government to deliver its vision for reconciliation, equality, respect for rights and parity of esteem," he said.

Speaking as she arrived at the count centre in Magherafelt, Co Derry, ahead of her acceptance speech as an MLA in Mid Ulster, Michelle O'Neill said "the people have spoken" and there was "no reason for any delay".

“Our job now is to turn up [at Stormont]. Leadership matters, equality matters, turning up matters,” she said. “We should have an Executive formed now next week. We should agree a programme for government, to put money into people’s pockets. That is what people voted for.”

The DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson said he will make it clear next week whether he will return to Stormont or remain at Westminster.

“The party officers will sit down, we will consider what we need to do now to get the action that is required from the government, I will be making my decision clear on all of that early next week,” he told the BBC.

Alliance surge

Meanwhile, the extent of the Alliance surge was the other big talking point at count centres.

The party delivered a final tally of 17 seats which makes it the third-largest party in the Assembly, ahead of both the UUP and the SDLP, and entitled to at least an additional ministry at Stormont.

In North Belfast the outgoing minister for infrastructure, the SDLP’s Nichola Mallon, lost her seat to Alliance’s Nuala McAllister, while in South Belfast the party confounded critics, who had warned that running two candidates could split the vote, and brought home both Paula Bradshaw and her running mate Kate Nicholl – the latter at the expense of the Green Party leader Clare Bailey, who lost her seat.

In North Antrim, Patricia O'Lynn became both the first Alliance MLA and the first female to hold a seat in the constituency – here defeating the DUP veteran Mervyn Storey in what had previously been considered a DUP heartland.

Among those celebrating with the Alliance Party at the Titanic count centre in Belfast were Maire and Jim Hendron, who were among the party’s founders in 1970.

An “emotional” Ms Hendron said it was “difficult to describe how I feel today” because it was “a day we’d hoped for a very long time”.

Alliance’s victory, she said, showed Northern Ireland has changed and has moved beyond orange and green. “Look at the array of MLAs that have been elected to the Alliance Party today. There are very few grey suits and very few grey hairs.”

Ulster Unionists

After a poor day on Friday, there was better news for the UUP on Saturday as the former leader Mike Nesbitt and current leader Doug Beattie held their seats in Strangford and Upper Bann respectively.

There were fears Mr Beattie could lose his seat. He said on Saturday: “I think you never take the electorate for granted . . . I have had to make unpopular decisions in the direction of the party as party leader and that may well have had an effect on me, but these are the sort of things you go through all the time when you’re thinking about an election.

“People are going to the likes of the Alliance Party in droves because they’re being turned off by that angry, negative unionism. It might take a while to change that psyche.”

The re-election of the SDLP’s Cara Hunter in East Derry was a welcome chink of light for the party, and after the loss of four seats ensured the party retained a female MLA among its team.

Despite its increase in vote share the Traditional Unionist Voice failed to pick up any seats beyond that of its leader Jim Allister after its best chance of a second seat, Stephen Cooper, was eliminated in Strangford.

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