Counting in the Belfast Assembly elections is drawing to a close this evening with significant gains for Sinn Féin and Ian Paisley’s DUP, a major setback for Reg Empey’s UUP, a breakthrough for the Green Party and the apparent final demise of Bob McCartney’s UKUP.
Attention is now turning to efforts to persuade the Dublin and London governments to stick to their March 26th deadline for a powersharing deal.
The DUP entered the election with 32 seats and appeared on course to end up with 36 seats. Sinn Féin had 24 seats and has won 28.
The SDLP, which saw its vote drop from 117,000 to 105,000, is set to win 16 seats. It failed to pick up target seats in Newry and Armagh and Strangford.
It was a disastrous election for the Ulster Unionist Party, with its vote slumping from 156,000 to just 103,000, half of what the DUP won. It currently is on target for 18 seats.
The Alliance Party proved a success. It entered the election with six seats and has won seven, with Naomi Long polling very strongly in east Belfast and Ann Lo winning a seat in South Belfast, a constituency with a high immigrant population.
UK unionist leader Robert McCartney issued an emotional statement after he failed to hold his seat in North Down, expressing satisfaction at his political career and wishing an unnamed successor well.
The Green Party’s Brian Wilson scored a notable success, winning a seat in McCartney’s constituency. - who ran in several constituencies - was earlier eliminated from his home constituency of North Down after polling only 1,800 first preference votes.
Meanwhile Gerry McGeough, an independent republican candidate in the Fermanagh/South Tyrone constituency, continues to be interrogated by British forces after he was arrested outside the Omagh count centre yesterday. After a mixed result, other independent republicans who failed to gain a foothold in the Assembly said they would build towards future local council elections.
The turnout was similar to the last Assembly election in November 2003 when slightly more than 63 per cent of the electorate voted. More than 1.11 million voters using 600 polling stations returned 108 Assembly members chosen from among 256 candidates.
Both the DUP and Sinn Féin used skilful vote management to extract seats from their strongholds. The DUP took four seats in Strangford and North Antrim, while Sinn Féin pulled five in West Belfast and three in West Tyrone. The DUP’s Gregory Campbell - who was elected in East Derry - said his party’s vote management was paying off.
The destination of the last assembly seats was being closely watched by the parties as assembly strength determines the number of ministerial designations each party receives. According to the d’Hondt formula, the ten positions in the Ministerial Executive, assuming one is formed, will be distributed as follows: DUP (4), SF (3), UUP (2), SDLP (1).
Earlier today, British prime minister Tony Blair and 26-County taoiseach Bertie Ahern said in a joint statement that voters in the Six Counties had issued a clear message they want devolved [power-sharing] government back.
The premiers said: “Restoration of the devolved institutions represents an opportunity of historic proportions.”
After a hardline statement yesterday by the DUP leader Ian Paisley, calling for further “delivery” from Sinn Féin, there was some concern that Mr Blair appeared to pull back from the stated March 26th ‘deadline’ for the return of power-sharing.
Later, British officials played down Blair’s apparent lack of commitment to the deadline.
Speaking after a meeting with British Direct Ruler Peter Hain, Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams said: “We look to both governments to accept what the people overwhelmingly voted for.
“That is for local politicians who sought a mandate to execute that mandate in the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement.”
Mr Hain warned that he needs an answer on power-sharing from the North’s parties by 25 March -- just over two weeks away.
Sinn Féin nominee for the post of Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness today said that the electorate had delivered a clear mandate for a power sharing executive.
Speaking at a press conference in Belfast, Mr McGuinness said Sinn Féin was up for the challenge of government in both parts of Ireland -- hos party formally launched its campaign for the general election in the 26 Counties with a major election rally in Dublin city centre today.
“We are eager to get down to the business of delivering for all of the people,” he said. “We are eager to get down to the business of tackling the very many social and economic issues which came up at he doorsteps, be it water charges, rates increases or health and education cuts.
“People should make no mistake about it, Sinn Féin are ready for government and there is no reason why this should not happen by the March 26th. So we will approach the coming weeks positively and with the intention of securing power sharing government in the north and agreement with the British and Irish governments on a substantial peace dividend to allow the new executive to deliver real and tangible change.”
DUP 36 (+6) SF 28 (+4) UUP 18 (-9) SDLP 16 (-2) All. 7 (+1) Gre. 1 (+1) PUP 1 Ind. 1
Full result details available at https://republican-news.org/elections