Sinn Fein has attained its highest ever share of the vote in the North of Ireland and came within touching distance of outpolling all of the other parties as votes were tallied today.
But the headline story of the election may be the resignation of Mike Nesbitt, the leader of the Ulster Unionist party, who quit this evening despite marginally increasing his party’s vote share. He stepped down as their unionist rivals in the DUP maintained their top spot amid public outrage over corruption and bigotry scandals.
In a news conference this evening, Mr Nesbitt said he had been reflecting on the results and said the “buck stops here.”
For the past three months, he said, he had been criticising another party leader for not taking responsibility. He said it would be the “height of hypocrisy” if he did not take full responsibility for his party’s poor election performance.
Mr Nesbitt said: “I led into this election. I was the one who argued it should be a referendum on RHI and on ten years of the DUP and Sinn Fein leading our Executive government.
“I am the one who suggested in a normal society people would vote on performance and that the DUP and Sinn Fein did not earn another mandate. And I’m the one who said this should be Northern Ireland’s first post-sectarian election based on the economy and education, health and housing, and that I had a different vision.”
He added: “But the electorate disagreed. They certainly did not give me a mandate big enough for me to feel justified in continuing in this position, so I shall not continue in this position.”
After adding the results of first preferences, the DUP won 28.9%, down 1.1% -- only marginally above Sinn Fein’s historic 27.9%, an increase of 3.9%. The UUP reached 12.9% votes, up 0.3%, while the nationalist SDLP won 11.9% votes, down 0.1%.
As the results came in, both DUP leader Arlene Foster and Sinn Fein president called for respect for the mandates their parties had been given by the electorate.
Arriving at the Belfast count centre, Mr Adams said: “It is a vote and mandate that will have to be respected by the two governments [British and Irish], by all the other parties... for an end to the old status quo, for a new beginning as to how we do our business here.”
He also said the results were a vote of confidence in Irish unification and his party’s position on Brexit.
Sinn Fein has called for a vote on reunification and, in the interim, for the Six Counties of Ireland under British rule to receive a special designated status within the EU after Britain’s exit from the bloc.
He said: “It is a vote for Irish unity, a vote for us together as a people. As Ian Paisley famously told Martin McGuinness, we don’t need Englishmen to govern us.”
Mr Adams also criticised the DUP’s behaviour in the last government. “They lost the run of themselves.. They got themselves in a little bubble. That bubble has been punctured by Martin McGuinness and by others.”
He also suggested that the DUP nominate someone other than Ms Foster to act as the unionist leader in the next Executive.
However, Foster was typically uncompromising. Speaking following her election at the Omagh count centre, Ms Foster said Sinn Fein must respect the mandate “that has been given to me”.
“I think it’s very clear that [the election] was absolutely not about the RHI [corruption scandal], it may have been the excuse but it certainly wasn’t the cause of the election.
“The cause of the election was Sinn Fein and republicanism wanting to rerun [last year’s] election... they have mobilised their vote in a very effective way.”
Ms Foster said she was pleased that the DUP vote was still the largest party in terms of votes cast.
“It is very clear in terms of unionism that it is the DUP that speaks for unionism.”
But there have been key setbacks for the DUP and it still remains unclear if the party will retain the key threshold of thirty seats in order to retain their veto over political change. In one setback, the notoriously bigoted Nelson McCausland failed to hold his seat in north Belfast as the constituency looked that it might return a historic majority of three nationalist seats out of five.
Meanwhile, the vote share of the cross-community Alliance Party rose significantly, while People before Profit, despite fielding more candidates, saw their share fall, losing the seat of party leader, veteran Derry socialist Eamonn McCann, after less than a year.
The SDLP’s Justin McNulty attributed the strong Sinn Fein vote to the bigotry and sectarianism of Arlene Foster. “Her dismissive remarks had people out in droves,” he said. SDLP leader Colum Eastwood admitted Sinn Fein were the “net beneficiaries” of public outrage at the actions of the Stormont government.
“The Sinn Fein vote has gone up very highly, which is a result of the overall context of this election, which has been pitched as a battle between the DUP and Sinn Fein,” he said. “Those of us in the middle have been clearly squeezed.”
Another historic success for Sinn Fein announced this evening was the success of Philip McGuigan in topping the poll in the unionist heartland of North Antrim, synonymous with the name of unionist firebrand Ian Paisley.
There was also a shock Sinn Fein success in South Down, a traditional bastion of the SDLP, where the party topped the poll as the SF vote climbed above that of the SDLP. There were also prospects of unexpected gains in East Derry and Fermanagh-South Tyrone.
Following this election, Sinn Fein and the DUP will have three weeks to resolve a wide gulf of differences and form a new administration. Otherwise, the London government has threatened to reimpose full, direct British rule.
With 53 of the 90 seats filled as the examination of the voters’ lower order preferences continues, the current tally of the parties is:
Sinn Fein 27.9% (+3.9%) 22 seats
DUP 28.1% (-1.1%) 14 seats
UUP 12.9% (+0.3%) 7 seats
Alliance 9.1% (+2.1%) 5 seats
SDLP 11.9% (-0.1%) 4 seats
People Before Profit 1.8% (-0.2%) 1 seat
TUV 2.6% (-0.9%) 0 seats
Green 2.3% (-0.4%) 0 seats
Some of the 18 constituency counts are set to extend into Saturday. An update on the results will be included in the weekly publication of Irish Republican News to be published tomorrow.