Pressure on Arlene Foster after Sinn Féin surge in Ulster elections

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

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

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Arlene Foster remains safe as leader of the Democratic Unionist Party despite its disappointing performance in the Northern Ireland Assembly election, MP Jeffrey Donaldson has said.

The DUP stalwart said there is no question over Foster’s future and she will be back to take the lead at Stormont.

The pro-Brexit party narrowly remained the region’s largest by just one seat as Sinn Féin enjoyed major gains in the snap election.

The DUP previously had ten seats more that Sinn Féin.

Donaldson said that despite the bruising result, the DUP is still the largest party and its focus now “is on Arlene and the party getting a government up and running again at Stormont”.

He said: “I am not aware of any election in the past where the leader of the largest party resigns because they have won the election.

“We need to learn the lesson and understand what people were saying in this election and what the key messages are.

“We have been given the responsibility as the main party to take the lead at Stormont and that is what we intend to do, so we are not going to get bogged down on what some people want to focus on, which is personalities.

“Arlene is leading the largest party and we need to get on with the job of forming a government that works for us all.”

Sinn Féin and the DUP now have three weeks to establish a government. If agreement cannot be reached in that time then, by law, another election will be called.

But Donaldson said: “If we can’t get a government formed within three weeks I don’t think the Westminster government will allow another election. I think they will introduce direct rule.

“We are determined to work to achieve power-sharing government, but if it doesn’t happen I fear we could be looking at a lengthy period of direct rule.”

Former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers told the BBC the UK government could legislate to give the DUP and Sinn Féin more time to negotiate.

Sinn Féin’s leader in Northern Ireland, Michelle O’Neill, has said a “big job lies ahead” in terms of getting Stormont up and running.

“We have to go in there wanting to find a way forward. But we have to have fundamental change from the DUP,” she said. “There is a hard road in front of us in the next three weeks but Sinn Féin is coming at it trying to find a way forward.”

Just 1,168 first-preference votes separated the DUP and Sinn Féin, and for the first time unionists will not have an overall majority at Stormont.

Amid the fallout, Mike Nesbitt, left, said he would resign as Ulster Unionist leader.

It was a positive campaign for both the SDLP and Alliance, who both maintained their seats.

The election was called after the collapse of a coalition led by Foster’s DUP and Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness.

McGuinness resigned over Foster’s refusal to step aside as first minister pending an inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme, which could cost the Northern Ireland taxpayer £490 million.

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