Sinn Féin has overtaken the DUP as the largest party of local government in the North after what it described as a “momentous” result in the council elections.
With less than 20 seats out of 462 still to be declared at 9.30pm on Saturday, Sinn Féin was on 139 seats – an increase of more than 30 compared to its tally in the last council election in 2019 – compared to the DUP on 118.
Alliance was on 65 seats – an increase of 12 – while the UUP and SDLP have each lost around 20 seats, to take them to 53 and 37 seats respectively.
Counting was expected to conclude late on Saturday night, with the full results in four District Electoral Areas (DEAs) in Belfast – Ormiston, Botanic, Oldpark and Collin – set to be the last to be announced.
Sinn Féin – which has yet to lose a seat in any constituency – is expected to add to its tally, with five of the six seats in the Collin area already declared for Sinn Féin, and two in Oldpark.
The party has polled almost 31 per cent of the first preference votes so far – an increase on the 29 per cent it took in last year’s Assembly elections – compared to the DUP on 23 per cent, Alliance on 13 per cent, UUP on 11 per cent and SDLP on nine per cent.
Average turnout across Northern Ireland was 54 per cent, but turnout was higher in areas seen as predominantly nationalist and lower in areas regarded as predominantly unionist.
Smaller parties and a number of Independent councillors have also lost out, as did two party leaders, both in north Belfast – the Green Party leader, Mal O’Hara, failed to win re-election in Castle DEA in north Belfast and Billy Hutchinson, the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) leader lost out in Court DEA.
Speaking to the BBC, the Sinn Féin vice-president and First Minister designate Michelle O’Neill repeated her call for the Assembly and Executive to be restored in the wake of her party’s election victory, which mirrored that of last year’s Assembly election.
The Stormont institutions have been in limbo since that election because of the DUP’s refusal to re-enter powersharing until its concerns over post-Brexit trading arrangements are addressed.
Speaking on the BBC, Ms O’Neill said their campaign had been about “positive leadership, it was about a restoration of the Executive, it was about making politics work.
“That has resonated with the electorate and they have come out in such strong numbers that we are now on course to have a very momentous election result.
“We need to double down in terms of getting an Executive restored and getting our councils up and running again,” she said.
The DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson defended his party’s performance, telling the BBC “we’re winning seats in places we haven’t won seats before and it’s a strong performance in very difficult and challenging circumstances.”
But he added there was “no getting away from the fact that unionism needs to take a long, hard look at how we manage elections, the splintering of the unionist vote, the turnout, the differential in turnout between areas.
“These are issues that we do need to address,” he said.
The Ulster Unionist leader, Doug Beattie, said he was “disappointed” with the result but indicated he intended to stay on as leader.
The SDLP leader Colum Eastwood defended his party’s performance, saying “a lot of nationalists were “very angry, very fed up, wanting to send a message to the DUP to get back to work and I think a lot of people felt the best way to do that was to vote for Sinn Féin.”