Assembly Election: Unionist majority cut as Sinn Fein surge

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Stormont’s snap election has significantly altered the make-up of Northern Ireland’s devolved Assembly, with nationalism making major strides at the expense of unionists.

In a dramatic shake-up, unionists have lost their long-enduring and highly symbolic overall majority in the chamber.

Michelle O'Neill, leader of Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland, celebrates winning her seat for Mid Ulster. Picture: Getty Images

Michelle O'Neill, leader of Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland, celebrates winning her seat for Mid Ulster. Picture: Getty Images

Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt announced his resignation after a poor showing, while DUP leader and former first minister Arlene Foster will face intense scrutiny after her party fell below the threshold to trigger a contentious Stormont veto mechanism.

Having entered the election 10 seats ahead of Sinn Fein, the DUP saw that gap slashed to a solitary seat as the republican party’s support surged.

The nationalist SDLP also fared better than many expected, replacing the UUP as the third largest party in the Assembly.

The results may be rendered moot if the main parties fail to a strike a deal to form a new powersharing executive within three weeks.

I think it’s a brilliant day for equality, I think it’s a great day for democracy

Michelle O’Neill, Sinn Fein’s northern leader

If that deadline passes, the Government would be obliged to call yet another snap election, but it may instead opt to put Stormont in cold storage and reintroduce direct rule.

The DUP emerged with 28 seats, Sinn Fein had 27, SDLP 12, the UUP 10, the Alliance Party eight, the Greens two, People Before Profit one, the Traditional Unionist Voice one and one independent unionist.

That leaves 40 unionists and 39 nationalist/republicans, with the remainder of the 90 MLAs affiliated to neither tradition.

Mr Nesbitt has said he will remain as UUP leader until a successor is found. At least he won his Assembly seat - other high-profile MLAs were not so fortunate.

The SDLP’s Alex Attwood, the UUP’s Danny Kennedy, and the DUP’s Nelson McCausland and Lord Morrow were four former Executive ministers who failed to secure a return to a Stormont legislature that is being cut from 108 to 90 members.

Despite Mr Nesbitt’s dramatic announcement, the story of the election was the increase in support for Sinn Fein.

The republican party came extremely close to securing more first preference votes than the long-time largest party, the DUP.

While the DUP saw its vote dip, the travails of the UUP meant it reaffirmed its position as the main voice of unionism.

That offered a measure of solace in what was otherwise a bad election for Mrs Foster’s party, which no longer has enough MLAs - 30 - to deploy Stormont’s controversial “petition of concern”.

The mechanism effectively handed the DUP a veto on issues including moves to lift the ban on same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland.

The snap poll was forced after Sinn Fein pulled the plug on the powersharing institutions in protest at Mrs Foster’s handling of the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) - an error-ridden scheme that left Stormont facing a potential overspend of almost £500 million.

The campaign exposed other major policy disputes between the parties.

Sinn Fein’s northern leader Michelle O’Neill said: “I think it’s a brilliant day for equality, I think it’s a great day for democracy.

“The vote has increased. I think that is because people knew that action needed to be taken, they have had their say, we now need to get down to the business of fixing what’s wrong and delivering for all citizens.”

After being elected in her Fermanagh and South Tyrone constituency, Mrs Foster said: “I think it’s very clear that was absolutely not about RHI. It may have been the excuse but it certainly wasn’t the cause of the election.

“The cause of the election was Sinn Fein and republicanism wanting to rerun the election, they have mobilised their vote in a very effective way.

“I am pleased that the DUP has come out as the largest party in terms of votes. It is very clear in terms of unionism that it is the Democratic Unionist Party that speaks for unionism.”

She added: “I do hope devolution will get back up and running as quickly as possible.”

With the UUP failing to make any ground on the DUP, former TV anchor Mr Nesbitt fell on his sword.

His campaign pledge to transfer a second preference vote to the nationalist SDLP appears to have been his undoing, with unionist voters clearly not keen on him voicing support for any candidate who favoured a united Ireland.

Mr Nesbitt said it had been an “absolute honour” to lead the party.

“In pure terms, the buck stops here,” he said.

He said his real regret was that Northern Ireland society appeared to have emerged from the election more polarised.

Mr Nesbitt said the electorate had rejected his hope for a post-sectarian vote.

“We will get there,” he said. “Some day Northern Ireland will vote as a normal democracy. We will vote in a post-sectarian election, but it’s now clear it will not happen during the duration of my political career.”

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said he will consider joining any new powersharing government.

“We are very, very happy. This has been a fantastic turnaround for the SDLP. In a very poisonous atmosphere. We have come out with an increased support and I don’t think anybody was predicting that.”