The Alliance Party has produced another sensational election result in Northern Ireland and is well on course to land a European parliamentary seat.
Naomi Long, the leader of the cross community party, attracted almost 106,000 first preference votes, coming in just behind Sinn Fein and the DUP in the first round of counting.
Her vote share is double that of the 53,052 gained by the Ulster Unionist Party, which had been defending the seat Mrs Long is now poised to capture.
Northern Ireland, which voted 56% Remain in the 2016 referendum, is now on course to return two Remain supporting MEPs and one Brexiteer.
No candidate reached the 143,112 quota after the first round of counting at the Meadowbank Sports Arena in Magherafelt, Co Londonderry.
Former Alliance leader David Ford said the party could now lay claim to be the third biggest in Northern Ireland, having overtaken the Ulster Unionists and SDLP.
“I think we potentially are now in that position,” he told PA.
“At this stage it looks extremely good for Naomi and there’s every chance she’s in third place with potentially the highest vote the Alliance Party has ever had.”
Sinn Fein’s Martina Anderson repeated her feat of 2014 and topped the poll with 126,951 first preferences.
DUP MEP Diane Dodds is also on course to retain her seat, registering 124,991 votes.
Both women were cheered by supporters as they entered the count centre on Monday afternoon.
Mrs Anderson said the result in Northern Ireland had sent a strong message to Europe.
“Absolutely delighted, our strategy has worked,” she told PA.
“We wanted to send a message back to the EU by, in the first instance, topping the poll and, more importantly, sending two Remainers back.
“Fifty seven per cent of the people who voted here voted to remain in the EU and they have sent a strong message back to Europe that they want to stay in the EU.”
Sinn Fein deputy leader Michelle O’Neill said she was equally delighted for Alliance candidate Ms Long.
“We said clearly in this election this is a chance for people to come out and vote again against Brexit, that’s clearly what’s been borne out here in the election result,” she said.
— DUP (@duponline) May 27, 2019
“We think it’s a good day for Remain – a good message sent back to Europe that we don’t want to be dragged out of Europe against our wishes.”
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood, who had been hoping to win back a seat former leader John Hume held for 25 years, notched 78,589 first preferences.
UUP candidate Danny Kennedy limped in sixth in the first round, behind the leader of the Traditional Unionist Voice party Jim Allister, who scored 62,021 votes.
Green Party leader Clare Bailey got 12,471 first preferences; Conservative Amandeep Bhogal got 662; Ukip’s Robert Hill 5,115; independent Neil McCann got 948; and Jane Morrice, also an independent, got 1,719.
All five were eliminated after the first stage of counting, with their transfers being distributed to candidates still in the race in the second round.