Sinn Féin and DUP reinforce grip on power

Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionists are on course to reinforce their grip on power at Stormont, with the republican party closing the gap on their unionist rivals.

Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt quit after his party’s poor showing in the Assembly election. With the UUP failing to make any ground on the Democratic Unionists, and losing a number of high-profile seats, the former TV anchor fell on his sword. He said he will remain in position while a successor is found.

Mr Nesbitt said his real regret was that Northern Irish society appeared to have emerged from the election more polarised. He said the electorate had rejected his hope for a post-sectarian vote.

It has not been a good election for the Ulster Unionists and nationalist SDLP, both of whom failed to make the inroads they predicted. The vote share of the cross- community Alliance Party has risen.

Sinn Féin came within touching distance of polling the most first-preference votes for the first time.

The DUP maintained the top spot, despite its vote share falling as the Sinn Féin share surged. The DUP notched 225,413 first preferences, down 1.11 percentage points on last year, to Sinn Féin’s 224,245 — an increase of 3.89 percentage points.

In terms of the overall picture, the DUP secured 28.06% of first preferences to Sinn Féin’s 27.91% The final breakdown of seats may not ultimately be as close, as results in the proportional representation contest rely on transfers from other parties, but the republicans were nevertheless buoyed by the result.

The party’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 Féin pulled the plug on the power-sharing institutions in protest at DUP first minister Arlene Foster’s handling of a botched green energy scheme, the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI).

The campaign exposed other major policy disputes between the parties.

After being elected in her Fermanagh and South Tyrone constituency, Ms 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 Féin 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 Féin will have three weeks to resolve their multiple differences and form a new administration.

The reimposition 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.

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

In a major blow to the UUP, party stalwart Danny Kennedy lost his seat in Newry and Armagh.

His elimination followed the loss of another Stormont veteran — the SDLP’s Alex Attwood in west Belfast.

Mr Kennedy was a minority unionist voice in the Newry and Armagh constituency, which includes South Armagh and a former regional development minister at Stormont.

A massive swell in voting numbers has largely favoured Sinn Féin. Mr Kennedy said: “Sometimes when the tide comes in like that, you are washed away.”

Mr Attwood was a political Houdini who scraped into a seat repeatedly in the republican stronghold of west Belfast for the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP).

He was the first heavy hitter to go during an election in which the reduction in the number of Stormont seats from 108 to 90 made casualties inevitable.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said Sinn Féin were the “net beneficiaries” of a huge nationalist turnout intent on punishing Ms Foster.

“The Sinn Féin vote has gone up very highly, which is a result of the overall context of this election, which has been pitched as a battle between the DUP and Sinn Féin,” he said.

“Those of us in the middle have been clearly squeezed.”

Highest voter turnout since Good Friday agreement year

Turnout in the Northern Ireland Assembly election hit its highest level since the year of the Good Friday peace agreement.

Almost two thirds of the electorate voted with the future of powersharing hanging in the balance.

The number taking to the ballot boxes swelled to 64.78%, 10 percentage points higher than last year’s Stormont poll.

A total of 812,783 votes were cast.

The snap Stormont Assembly election was called following January’s collapse of the ministerial coalition with the DUP and Sinn Féin at its helm in a row over a botched green energy scheme.

Soaring viewing figures for the two main TV leaders’ debates had hinted at a surge in voter engagement, something borne out on polling day.

What impact the increased turnout will have on the results will only start to become clear today.

In the first Assembly election after devolution began, in June 1998, 69.88% of voters turned out.

It came just months after the Belfast Agreement, which largely ended the 30-year conflict.

Some of the 18 constituency counts are set to extend into today.

A total of 228 candidates are vying for the 90 seats in Stormont’s slimmed-down devolved legislature.

The Assembly poll was the second in 10 months.

The last coalition executive led by the two largest parties at Stormont — the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Féin — collapsed in January, only eight months after last May’s election.

They fell out over the unionist party’s handling of a botched green energy scheme and are also at odds on a host of other issues.

If the former partners in government are again returned as the main players, they will have three weeks to resolve their multiple differences and form a new administration.

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

The Ulster Unionists and nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), which have presented themselves as an alternative partnership, are bidding to wrest control away from the fractious former allies.

The cross-community Alliance Party is also hopeful of a strengthened mandate.

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

Five seats are up for grabs per constituency.

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