Sinn Fein are preparing for a historic victory as the first votes are counted in the Northern Ireland Assembly election.
Voters are choosing a new 90-seat Assembly, with polls suggesting the Irish Nationalist Party, and former political wing of the IRA, could win the most seats – and the premiership.
It would be the first time that an Irish nationalist party would emerge as the largest in Stormont.
As of 4.50pm, only 15 seats had been announced – Sinn Fein having won 10, the Democratic Unionist Party two, the Ulster Unionist Party one and the Alliance Party two.
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But the final results are not expected until late tonight, or even early Saturday morning.
The DUP, which has lost support from trade unionists over its response to Brexit and trade deals over Northern Ireland, may boycott the power-sharing government rather than see a nationalist prime minister.
This caused a split in votes between the unionist parties, the DUP, the UUP and the TUV (Traditional Unionist Voice).
Speaking to Sky News ahead of his impending election to the Assembly, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, leader of the DUP, said: ‘I fear the message here is just unionism divided is not unionism that will win elections , so I think we have to tackle the divisions within trade unionism, we can’t go on like this.
“I hope that by the next election we will see a more united trade unionism.”
He added: ‘We are separated from Britain by a customs border and that makes us second class citizens in our own country. This is not in line with the Belfast Good Friday Agreement.’
Sinn Fein hopes for historic breakthrough
However, Sir Jeffrey currently sits in Westminster as an MP and will have to decide within the next seven days which seat he wants to resign – and may end up resigning the one he just won.
DUP MP Ian Paisley has said there will be no devolved government in Northern Ireland as issues around the Northern Ireland Protocol remain unresolved.
Speaking at an election count center in Jordanstown, Mr Paisley said: “I think the elephant in the room is protocol.
“Until we fix this problem, we can have the elections we want, but there will be no government until we solve this protocol problem.
“I hope that today will be a priority for the government that they now have to solve this problem, not only for trade unionists but for everyone. The protocol hurts us all.
Irish Unity Referendum
Unionist parties have won every election in Stormont for 100 years – since the partition of Ireland in 1921 – and a Nationalist victory would raise constitutional questions.
Such an outcome could see supporters of an Irish unity referendum arguing for a vote with renewed vigour.
Speaking to reporters shortly before her election was announced, Sinn Fein Vice President Michelle O’Neill said she was feeling “very positive”.
Asked about the possibility of her taking on the role of prime minister, she said: ‘It’s very early to say, let’s get all the votes counted.
She said Sinn Fein wanted to “work in partnership with others”.
“It’s the only way to accomplish much, much, more for the people here, whether it’s in terms of the cost of living crisis or trying to fix our health service.”
Alliance surge cost UUP and SDLP seats
Meanwhile, Alliance leader Naomi Long dedicated her re-election to her recently deceased father-in-law. His party is on track to win seats it did not have before – at the expense of the UUP and the nationalist SDLP.
“It’s been quite an emotional campaign for me,” she said.
“I lost my stepfather in the last few weeks, and we buried him yesterday. I just want to dedicate this victory to him because without family I couldn’t do what I do, and without their support, I wouldn’t be where I am.
“I’m absolutely thrilled to have surveyed so well and can’t wait to be later today and see all of my colleagues bring it home.”
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