Sinn Féin closes gap on unionist rivals as middle ground collapses
Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionists were last night on course to reinforce their grip on power at Stormont, with the republican party closing the gap on its unionist rivals
As the counting continued in the snap Assembly election, the former coalition partners looked set to consolidate their respective pre-eminent positions within nationalism and unionism.
It has not been a good election for the Ulster Unionists (UUP) and nationalist SDLP, both of which have failed to make the inroads they had predicted.
Meanwhile, the vote share of the cross-community Alliance Party has risen.
Sinn Féin came very close to 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.
It notched 225,413 first preferences, down 1.11pc on last year, to Sinn Féin's 224,245 - an increase of 3.89pc.
In terms of the overall picture, the DUP secured 28.06pc of first preferences to Sinn Féin's 27.91pc.
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.
Sinn Féin'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, Mrs 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 re-run the election; it has mobilised its 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 re-imposition 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 British government may pass emergency legislation to suspend devolution for the first time in 10 years ahead of more lengthy negotiations.
Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams said nationalists in the North had voted against Brexit.
With the prospect of a hard land border dividing the island, Mr Adams said the poll was a mandate for Northern Ireland to receive special status within the EU.
He said: "It is... a reassertion of our position on Brexit, that this part of Ireland should have a special designated status.
"Whatever your position is on the constitutional issue, the only way to stop a land frontier between a European state and the British state on this island is to make sure there is a special designated status within the European Union for this part of Ireland."
Northern Ireland voted Remain in the EU poll by 56pc to 44pc. However, some largely unionist areas voted Leave and the DUP, the largest party, campaigned for Brexit.
There are concerns Northern Ireland will lose pharmaceutical companies to the South.