Sinn Féin could be on its way to becoming the largest party in the Stormont Assembly. If tallies from count centres are borne out in final results from Thursday’s election, Michelle O’Neill is set to become First Minister-elect and the first nationalist to lead a Six County administration under British rule.
Arriving at the Magherafelt count centre in her Mid-Ulster constituency, she was asked by reporters if it would be an historic day for Sinn Féin. She said “we’ve got a long way to go first”, but added that she was “optimistic”.
The party’s vote has held up well amid a decline in support for the main unionist parties, as well as their nationalist rivals, the SDLP. Accepting early signs of a setback for his party, the SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said:
“It’s clear the First Minister message from Sinn Féin has landed with nationalist voters because they wanted to kick the DUP. We are finding a lot of people have lent votes to Sinn Féin.”
He added: “That’s a moment and we have to swim through it - people are attracted by the prospect of a nationalist First Minister. The tide goes in and the tide goes out”
A major blow to the SDLP could come if their deputy leader, Nichola Mallon, loses her seat in North Belfast, and there have also been predictions that the SDLP’s veteran MLA, Dolores Kelly could also her seat in Upper Bann.
The support of the 26 County establishment appeared to backfire for the SDLP, with senior figures from Fine Gael, Fianna Fail and Labour said to have received a hostile response when they joined SDLP canvassers.
Sinn Féin activists claimed the SDLP’s sniping and negative attacks on fellow nationalists had turned off voters. A flow of SDLP votes to Alliance and Aontú may also have nibbled away at the party, which will need transfers from lower placed candidates to save some of their most senior figures.
The other main story from the election is set to be a surge in support for the cross-community Alliance Party, who have picked up votes from across the political spectrum and are predicted to gain a handful of seats in the 90-member Assembly.
Other winners of the election according to early tallies are Peadar Tóibín’s Aontú, who have captured a significant share of the nationalist vote across the North and are set to be a force in local politics, particularly in Belfast.
There was also good news for the extreme unionist TUV, whose leader Jim Allister can expect to have company at Stormont for the first time.
However, it appears to be a poor result for the Ulster Unionist Party, whose leader Doug Beattie could be at risk of losing his Upper Bann seat, according to reports. Party tallies have Sinn Féin’s John O’Dowd topping the poll there, with Beattie behind the DUP and Alliance.
An initial check on votes have shown a turnout of 60.11% of voters across the North, a decline from 2017 of 4.67%. Further results will be published here throughout the count, which is expected to continue until tomorrow.