Sinn Féin erode DUP lead - no party has over 30 seats

Credit: Pacemaker

The composition of the Stormont Assembly has been changed significantly by this snap election.

While Sinn Féin virtually held their tally in a smaller legislature, a dip in the DUP vote meant a substantial drop in seats.

The overall picture was one of nationalism making gains at the expense of the unionist parties, who have now ceded their long-running and highly symbolic majority in the chamber.

It was an election that saw some high-profile MLAs lose their positions.

Perhaps the biggest casualty, so far, has been the Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt who held his seat, but resigned as party leader on Friday.

Former ministers, including the DUP's Nelson McCausland and Lord Morrow, the SDLP's Alex Attwood and Ulster Unionist Danny Kennedy all failed to secure their place in the new, smaller Assembly cohort.

The DUP leader, Arlene Foster, will face intense scrutiny after her party slumped under 30 seats, a loss of 10, crucially losing them the ability to single-handedly use the petition of concern veto mechanism.

This could open the way for legislative change, with the DUP previously acting as a bulwark against the introduction of same-sex marriage.

After a strong showing last May, that saw the party hold a ten seat lead over their Executive partners Sinn Féin, the margin has now been slashed to a single seat.

Meanwhile the SDLP out-performed many expectations, leapfrogging the UUP to become Stormont's third largest party.

Despite the significance of the election result, its consequence will hinge on the outcome of negotiations as the parties try to cobble together a new power-sharing Executive.

If the three week deadline passes without resolution, the Westminster government would be required to call another election or introduce some form of direct rule.

The snap poll was called after Sinn Féin effectively collapsed the devolved institutions, in protest at Arlene Foster's handling of the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) - an mis-handled green energy scheme that left Stormont facing a potential overspend of almost £500 million.

The result will have left the republican party feeling vindicated by their actions that triggered an election.

Sinn Féin's northern leader Michelle O'Neill said: "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."

DUP leader Arlene 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 Féin 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."

The Ulster Unionists failed to make inroads, despite the weakening of the DUP's position as a result of the scandal around the RHI.

This precipitated Mike Nesbitt's resignation. Controversy around his comment that he would give a second preference vote to an SDLP candidate appears to have cost him dearly.

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."