DUP to retain role of NI First Minister as SF support falls
The Democratic Unionist Party is on course to retain its leading role in Stormont as backing for Sinn Féin has fallen for the first time in decades in elections to the Northern Ireland assembly.
Sinn Féin had hoped to overtake the Democratic Unionists and gain the top post of First Minister in Stormont. Instead, it faces a challenge to retain all of its 29 seats in the 108-member assembly.
All of the winners of Thursday's election won't be known until later today. However, Sinn Féin suffered a shock in its west Belfast power base, where Gerry Carroll from the People Before Profit party topped the poll.
With all first-preference votes declared, the Democratic Unionist Party won 29.2pc support, down 0.8 points from the last Northern Ireland Assembly election in 2011.
Sinn Féin retained its dominant position in nationalist areas but saw its vote fall by 2.9 points to 24pc, an unexpected slide after two decades of relentless gains.
However, Democratic Unionist leader Arlene Foster was last night confident she would remain on as First Minister, with her party likely to increase its seats from the current 38.
Mrs Foster, who became Northern Ireland's first female leader in January after succeeding Peter Robinson as DUP leader, topped the vote in her native Fermanagh.
In contrast, Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, faced a longer road to victory in his home city of Derry. The Sinn Féin MLA finished the first round of voting barely ahead of a moderate nationalist challenger.
During the campaign, Mrs Foster put particular onus on beating Mr McGuinness in the race to see which one of them takes the First Minister's job.
It would require a significant electoral turnaround for Sinn Féin to topple the DUP as the largest party and most pundits believe it highly unlikely.
By late yesterday evening, the DUP was on 19 seats, followed by Sinn Féin on 12, the Alliance Party on three, the SDLP and the Ulster Unionists both on two and People Before Profit on one.
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood predicted an "Independents' day" across Northern Ireland. The 33-year-old, presiding over his first election in charge of the party, said early results appeared to show a voter trend in the Republic spreading across the border.
"We have seen it in the South, we've seen it in west Belfast, we've seen it right across the North, where people who are frustrated with the lack of delivery from this executive are voting Independent in large numbers."
Speaking after her election, Mrs Foster said: "I feel great, it is a great endorsement of our campaign."