Sinn Féin’s historic victory in the Assembly election “ushers in a new era” for Northern Ireland, the party’s vice-president Michelle O’Neill has said.
Sinn Féin won the largest number of seats in the election and with it the right to nominate the party’s Northern leader, Ms 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 Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) took one seat while three went to Independents.
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.
In her declaration speech in Magherafelt after topping the poll in Mid Ulster, Ms O’Neill said: “Today represents a very significant moment of change. Today ushers in a new era which I believer presents us all with an opportunity to reimagine relationships in this society on the basis of fairness, on the basis of equality and the basis of social justice.
“Irrespective of religious, political or social backgrounds my commitment is to make politics work.”
In a press conference shortly afterwards, party president Mary Lou McDonald said the Stormont power-sharing Executive needed to be re-established.
She said: “We would appeal to everybody to take stock, take breaths and really assess the huge responsibility that all of us carry. Collectively we have an obligation to get government up and running.”
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.
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.
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 [UK] 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.
Alliance Party leader Naomi Long said nothing can be delivered without government in Northern Ireland after her cross-community party’s election success.
The party more than doubled its tally of eight in the last vote in 2017 to elect 17 MLAs this time around, making it the third-largest party in the Assembly.
Speaking at the Jordanstown count centre on Saturday after party candidate Patricia O’Lynn had won the final seat in North Antrim from DUP veteran Mervyn Storey, Ms Long said she was excited about what her party could achieve at Stormont.
She said: “We went to the electorate based on a record of strong delivery in the last 2½ years. We need to get in there [Stormont] on Monday because without government we can’t deliver anything in Northern Ireland.
“I think given all the challenges that we face, if we squander this opportunity people will not forgive us, so we need to get in there.”
The DUP retained is position as the largest unionist party, despite a drop in its vote share.
Asked whether Northern Ireland will have devolved government in 2022, party leader Jeffrey Donaldson said: “Let’s cross all the bridges when we get to them.”
Mr Donaldson also 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.
There were fears Mr Beattie could lose his seat. He said on Saturday: “I think you never take the electorate for granted . . . 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. – Additional reporting PA