Stormont poised for deja-vu DUP/Sinn Fein government


The Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein may be returning to power at Stormont with the exactly the same number of seats they went into the Assembly election with.

With around three quarters of the 108 seats filled as the first day of counting drew to a close in the early hours of Saturday, the DUP was on course to replicate the 38 wins of 2011 and Sinn Fein was again poised to secure the 29 it achieved five years ago.

While one or two results might still prevent that exact scenario playing out, it will still be essentially "as you were" for the region's largest parties in the next Assembly.

DUP supporters were delighted with the performance, as even some party strategists had predicted a decrease on what was widely considered a high water mark in 2011.

Sinn Fein had wanted to secure the 30 seats that would have handed it the electoral strength to veto Assembly legislation using the much maligned "petition of concern" voting mechanism.

The smaller parties who filled seats in the coalition executive in the last term - the SDLP, Ulster Unionists and Alliance - failed to mount a significant challenge to the hegemony of the major government partners.

The SDLP was facing the prospect of losing a number of seats while the UUP also had a disappointing election and was left with only one Assembly representative in the whole of Belfast.

The new power-sharing administration is set to face vocal criticism from the opposition benches at Stormont, with socialist People Before Profit Alliance (PBPA) winning two seats. Gerry Carroll topped the poll in Sinn Fein's west Belfast heartland while veteran campaigner Eamonn McCann won a seat in Foyle.

The Green Party also won two seats in the new mandate, with party leader Steven Agnew being joined by Clare Bailey. Jim Allister, leader of the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) and arch-critic of the last administration, retained his seat, though failed to bring any colleagues in with him.

During the campaign, Mrs Foster placed particular onus on beating Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness in the race to see which one of them took the First Minister's job ahead of the Deputy First Minister's job.

She was mobbed by jubilant supporters as she arrived at the Belfast count centre on Friday evening.

"I am confident that I will be the First Minister of Northern Ireland," she said after topping the poll in Fermanagh and South Tyrone.

"I am absolutely delighted."

Mr McGuinness insisted his party had performed well.

"At this stage, we can say with considerable confidence that the ball park figure of 28, 29, 30 MLAs is eminently achievable (for Sinn Fein) even at this early stage," he said.

"I think that is a pretty remarkable performance."

In a clear sign the larger parties will not have it all their own way. Mr Carroll stormed home in west Belfast with more than 8,000 first preferences.

"For all the parties we will be a thorn in their side and I think it is needed," he said.

"You hear all this talk about a different type of politics and we hope we provide that for the next term."

Among the most high-profile political casualties was independent unionist John McCallister who lost his South Down seat after nine years.

The Alliance Party's Naomi Long and Sinn Fein's Michelle Gildernew will be making a return to the Stormont benches after previously serving as MPs.

Jenny Palmer, who quit the DUP amid allegations she had been bullied, took a seat from her former party when she was elected for the Ulster Unionists in Lagan Valley.

UUP leader Mike Nesbitt topped the poll in Strangford.

Former DUP health minister Jim Wells, who was embroiled in a series of controversies in the last term, was also re-elected in South Down.

The SDLP faced a tight battle to retain its single seat in West Belfast with Alex Attwood narrowly pipping the DUP's Frank McCoubrey by 89 votes.

A clearly relieved Mr Attwood, who was in the canteen when the news of his win was announced, admitted it was a huge "relief" after a "long day".

In South Belfast, Claire Hannah, who was co-opted into the assembly when former SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell stood down, proved successful in her first test at the Assembly polls and was elected just after midnight.

Her running mate, former television reporter Fearghal McKinney was eliminated at stage 10.

Colum Eastwood, who was embarking on his first election as SDLP leader, retained his seat in Foyle.

Sinn Fein's Culture Arts and Leisure Minister Caral Ni Chuillin was also returned for another term in North Belfast, as was Gerry Kelly.

Former DUP political adviser Emma Pengelly, who was co-opted into the last Assembly, won a seat in her own right in South Belfast, as did former DUP Belfast deputy mayor Christopher Stalford.

The poll was the first chance to vote for people born after the historic Good Friday Agreement.

Eighteen years on from the signing of the 1998 peace accord which paved the way for a devolved power-sharing government, voters were selecting the latest batch of MLAs to represent them at Stormont. There were 276 candidates standing across the 18 constituencies.

The overall turnout of valid and invalid votes has fallen on the 2011 Assembly election, but only slightly. More votes were actually cast than five years ago, but in the context of a larger electorate.

In 2011, 674,103 people went to the polls out of an electorate of 1,210,009 - a turnout of 55.71%. This year, 703,744 ballots were cast out of an electorate of 1,281,595 - giving a 54.91% turnout.

Counting will resume in the unfinished constituencies at 9am on Saturday.