The Democratic Unionist Party’s Northern Ireland Assembly victory was tonight hailed as its greatest ever political triumph.
Peter Robinson will return to Stormont as First Minister and the party could take 38 seats after a campaign which senior DUP members said was a testimony to the vision of their once beleaguered leader.
Sinn Féin is set to easily hold its position as the top voice in nationalism but as counts continued into a second night the party had yet to seal potential gains, while the smaller Ulster Unionists and SDLP are in a dogfight for final seats.
But it is already clear that a year after Mr Robinson’s career was written off following the scandal that engulfed his wife Iris, the DUP and its leader have emerged stronger than ever.
Arlene Foster, who temporarily stepped into Mr Robinson’s role as First Minister at the height of the crisis, said of the election: “I thought it was a tremendous performance and a real validation of Peter’s leadership.
“People had written us all off in January last year, but he has come back stronger than ever. This has been a fabulous period for the party. People thought we had reached the high water mark in 2007 (with 36 seats), but look where we are now.”
Mr Robinson’s 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 later lost his East Belfast Westminster seat amid the fallout, but his remarkable political revival was underlined by a poll-topping performance in the same constituency this time round.
Ms Foster was safely elected in Fermanagh/South Tyrone where Sinn Féin hopes to gain a seat against its nationalist rivals, the SDLP.
There was controversy as results were delayed by painfully slow counts across Northern Ireland, with a recount ordered in West Tyrone despite two Sinn Fein candidates, Barry McElduff and the area’s MP Pat Doherty, being deemed elected.
By 5pm, with three quarters of the seats filled in the 108-member Stormont legislature, the DUP had secured 35 positions, with 19 for Sinn Féin, eight for the UUP, nine for the SDLP, plus four seats for the cross-community Alliance Party.
The UUP feared losses, though perhaps not on the scale as first suggested, while the SDLP was also in danger of losing ground.
But Alliance seemed on track for gains, with its breakthrough symbolised by a symbolic poll-topping performance in South Belfast for Anna Lo.
In the 2007 Assembly election the DUP took 36 seats, Sinn Féin 28, the Ulster Unionists 18, the SDLP 16 and Alliance took seven.
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 administration.
And while republicans’ careful vote management seemed set to again secure five seats in West Belfast, despite the absence of Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams, the DUP was also clocking up multiple seat wins in a number of constituencies.
The Democratic Unionists were further boosted by their success in effectively dismissing the hardline threat of the Traditional Unionist Voice, whose figurehead Jim Allister could secure a lone seat.
The DUP’s Lagan Valley MP Jeffrey Donaldson also credited Peter Robinson with masterminding the party’s growth.
Mr Donaldson said: “Ian Paisley was always going to be a hard act to follow, but this has been a remarkable achievement for Peter Robinson – to surpass even the highest level Ian Paisley reached when he was leader.
“To think what he has come through in the last 18 months, and lead the party to its greatest ever election victory, is a tremendous testimony to his determination and energy and his strategic grasp of Northern Ireland politics.
“It is an endorsement, not just of the DUP, but of him as leader of Northern Ireland, and for those who have bought in to his vision of a shared future, which is our mandate to take us forward.”
Mr Robinson attributed a low voter turnout to the public being content with the Stormont government. He said his party had travelled a long political road since it dropped 40% support in a by-election it faced early in the last Assembly term.
He added: “It can only be down to one factor and that is that people like the direction that we are travelling in and like the policies that we are putting forward. I think people want to see a united community and shared community and shared society so that’s where we have been moving.”
Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness, who is set to resume the post of deputy First Minister, said that he wanted to see better cooperation in the power-sharing government from the SDLP and the UUP.
He accused the parties of being in government, while at the same time seeking political gain from attacking government decisions.
“I would like to see those parties as well as the Alliance Party working in the spirit of co-operation,” he said.
“If Peter Robinson and I can work together, then surely all of those parties can work with us.”
Senior Ulster Unionists said it was too soon to get a clear picture of their party’s position, but they were rocked by the loss of their chief whip Fred Cobain who was squeezed out in North Belfast.
The SDLP deputy leader Patsy McGlone who was set to retain his seat in Mid Ulster was clearly disappointed with his party‘s overall performance and said it would have to take a fresh look at its future direction.
He said: “This review should not be about navel-gazing. It has to be about clarity of message and especially our organisation. Those with good organisation performed very, very well getting the vote out. Others simply did not deliver. We have to reorganise and examine how we are coming across to the electorate.
“This election should have worked for us, but it didn‘t.”