Sinn Fein celebrate a resounding first day of counting in the Northern Ireland council elections with the party on course to become the biggest at local government level.
Party president Mary Lou McDonald said her party’s success in Northern Ireland’s local government elections was a message from the people that Stormont must return.
However, DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has insisted his party’s vote is holding up as counting continues to fill 462 seats across 11 council areas.
Should Sinn Fein come out on top when the count is complete, it will echo the party's success from last year's Assembly election.
In terms of the share of the first preference votes, Sinn Fein had 30.6%, more than 7% higher than the first preference share it enjoyed in the last council elections in 2019.
The DUP secured 23.7% of first preference votes, with Alliance on 12.8%, the UUP on 12% and the SDLP on 8.5%.
The votes are being counted through the single transferable vote system and the process will continue well into Saturday.
The general pattern around voter turnout appeared to be up slightly in areas which would be regarded as predominantly nationalist/republican and down slightly in areas viewed as unionist majority.
The Stormont Assembly has not been operational for more than a year due to the DUP’s boycott of the power-sharing institutions in protest against post-Brexit trading arrangements.
Speaking at Belfast City Hall, Mrs McDonald said the election results showed “a very strong showing for Sinn Fein right across the north”.
She added: “We are very pleased with that. We ran a very positive campaign and we are very pleased that the response to that has just been so positive by way of returns.
“In the course of the election a lot of things were discussed, all the local issues but, in truth, the big issue was that of a return of the executive, the need to have government, the need to have leadership, the need to work together, to make politics work for everybody.
“The need for Michelle O’Neill to come into post as the first minister for all.
“So, for us, that is the significance of this result, it is undoubtedly a vote for progress, for change, for positivity and, above all else, for working together.”
Party vice president Michelle O’Neill said the British and Irish Governments now needed to come up with a plan to bring Stormont back.
She said: “We ran a very positive campaign.
“But on the doors the conversation was very much centred around the need to have a restored Assembly and executive up and running.
“That needs to be done now without delay. We would call on both governments to get engaged and actually make that happen.
“There needs to be a plan now for a way back to a restored executive.”
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey said if Sinn Fein emerges as the largest party in local government, unionism will have to “look at where it’s going”.
Speaking at the Lisburn and Castlereagh council count, he said: “Let’s see when the final votes are all counted who is the largest party but, if Sinn Fein do emerge as the largest party in the council elections, I think yet again, as I’ve been saying, consistently, there are lessons that unionism needs to learn here.
“We can’t go on with a situation where turnout in unionist areas is significantly lower than in nationalist areas, you can’t go on with a situation where the unionist vote is continually splitting and splintering.
“The result of that is that seats are gifted to Sinn Fein and to others when the unionist vote is split, and when that unionist vote doesn’t transfer sufficiently.
“So, I think, we really do need to learn the lessons behind all of this, the DUP without a shadow of a doubt is by far the largest unionist party and I think that unionism needs to look at where it’s going and regroup around a strong voice for unionism, and see more co-operation between unionist parties.”
Meanwhile it appears as though voter turnout in Northern Ireland has held up.
UTV's Political Editor Tracey Magee said: "There was a great deal of talk about there being apathy around this election but that doesn't appear to be the case.
"It appears that the Northern Ireland electorate has come out, and come out in similar fashion they did last time around in 2019."
However, she cautioned there was still a way to run in the counting and it will be some time before the full picture emerges.
The elections use the single transferable vote system where voters rank candidates in order of preference.
Northern Ireland's 11 councils are responsible for setting rates, planning and waste collection as well as leisure services and parks.
It is the first electoral test for the parties since last year's Assembly elections and takes place against the backdrop of the Stormont stalemate, with the power-sharing institutions not operating as part of a DUP protest against post-Brexit trading arrangements.
From the last council poll Sinn Fein had 105 councillors and put forward 162 candidates in this election.
The DUP was the largest party in 2019 in local government with 122 councillors, and ran 152 candidates.
The Alliance party, who became the third biggest party at the last Assembly election, will hope to build on the 53 councillors they secured at the last local election.
The cross-community party fielded 110 candidates in 78 out of the 80 district electoral areas.
The Ulster Unionist Party ran 101 candidates, and will be hoping to secure numbers after losses in previous Assembly and local government elections.
The UUP currently has 75 councillors.
A party also hoping to maintain numbers is the SDLP, who have seen losses in previous elections. The party currently has 59 councillors and ran 86 candidates in this election.
Council elections present an opportunity for smaller parties who have little or no representation in the Assembly to secure a voice in local government.
The TUV ran 46 candidates, the Green Party 37, Aontu 19 and People Before Profit fielded 16.
Belfast City Council is the largest local government area in Northern Ireland with 60 councillors to be elected.
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