DUP and Sinn Féin set for Assembly-elections success in North

DUP leader Peter Robinson topped the poll in Belfast East, and has been elected on the first count in the Northern Ireland Assembly elections.

DUP leader Peter Robinson topped the poll in Belfast East, and has been elected on the first count in the Northern Ireland Assembly elections.

The DUP and Sinn Féin were tonight poised for a resounding success in the elections, with predictions of significant losses for the Ulster Unionist Party.

But the results will come against the background of a record low voter turnout - which is predicted to reach a figure of 55% or lower.

The election process has also been hit by slow vote counting across the North, with the first handful of results declared 20 hours after the polls closed and 10 hours after ballot boxes were opened.

Election officials blamed the complexity of having to deal with ballot papers from the Assembly election, local council elections and the UK-wide AV referendum at the same time.

Tallies of party performance gave clear indications of a strong showing by the DUP and Sinn Féin, as well as gains for the cross-community Alliance Party.

DUP leader Peter Robinson said: “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.

“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.”

Mr Robinson was set to romp home in East Belfast despite having the lost the constituency’s Westminster seat in the general election.

His career was rocked last year by the revelations that his wife and former MP Iris Robinson had an affair with a teenager and had secured loans from developers to help her lover set up a business.

The DUP leader has since made a major political recovery, but he declined to comment on his likely revival in East Belfast until the votes were counted.

Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness said there was “considerable dismay” over the delay in vote counting, but he welcomed indications of success for Sinn Féin and said the electorate was endorsing the parties who had co-operated to deliver for people at Stormont.

His claims were endorsed by his party President Gerry Adams, who now sits in the Dáil, who visited the count centre dealing with his former west Belfast constituency.

Mr Adams said he believed his party was set to have a good election.

He argued Sinn Féin had been reinvigorated by its recent success in the General Election where he led Sinn Féin to a trebling of its strength in the south, seizing 14 Dáil seats. In what he characterised as a further boost to the party’s profile as the only all-Ireland party, Sinn Féin last week also won three seats in the Senate.

Mr Adams said the UUP and the SDLP both held seats in the last ministerial Executive at Stormont, but had criticised the conduct of the DUP and Sinn Féin, 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 said.

He added: “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.”

The final shape of the 108 seat Stormont legislature will not be known until tomorrow evening.

The delays in counts were not all blamed on the complexity of the process. In the Omagh count centre electoral staff reportedly used hairdryers to peel apart votes that had become sodden when a ballot box got wet in the rain.

In the 2007 Assembly election the DUP took 36 seats, Sinn Féin 28, the Ulster Unionists 18, the SDLP 16 and the cross-community Alliance Party took seven.

The first result declared tonight was in the border constituency of Newry and Armagh where the sitting Sinn Féin MP Conor Murphy topped the poll. The SDLP’s Dominic Bradley and Ulster Unionist Danny Kennedy were also elected on the first count.

But across the North, the UUP in particular seemed in danger of suffering losses. This follows a disastrous British general election in which its partnership with the Conservatives failed to win it a single seat.

It is now a possibility that the Ulster Unionists could slip into fourth place at the Assembly, behind the SDLP.

But with each of the 18 constituencies returning six Assembly members, the battle for the last seat will prove crucial in determining the final make-up of the next Stormont regime.

Ulster Unionist leader Tom Elliott told the BBC it was too early to know the fate of his party.

Turnout may also be a factor in undermining the Ulster Unionists, with some observers arguing that the skilled vote management of the DUP and Sinn Féin might help them get over the line in tight contests.

If forecasts of a turnout of 55% or lower are proved correct, it would be far behind the figure for previous elections. 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 the North.

Some of the earliest confirmed turnout figures showed 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.

The run-in to polling day was marked by an upsurge in violence by dissident republican groups opposed to the peace process. The extremists launched a series of attacks, culminating in the murder of police constable Ronan Kerr who was killed when a booby-trap bomb exploded under his car in Omagh, Co Tyrone last month.

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