Talks are set to begin on the formation of a new Northern Ireland Assembly following an election that saw gains for the Democratic Unionist Party, Sinn Fein and the Alliance Party.
Party leader Peter Robinson will return to Stormont as First Minister, with the party after a campaign which senior DUP members said was a testimony to the vision of their once beleaguered leader.
The DUP won 38 seats in the 108-seat Assembly. Sinn Féin took 29, the SDLP 14, the UUP 16 and the Alliance Party eight. The TUV's Jim Allister, Steven Agnew of the Green Party and Independent David McClarty also took seats.
In the 2007 Assembly election the DUP took 36 seats, Sinn Féin 28, the Ulster Unionists 18, the SDLP 16 and Alliance took seven.
Ministerial portfolios will be allocated to parties under the d’Hondt system for the sharing of Executive posts.
A year after Mr Robinson’s career was written off following the scandal that engulfed his wife Iris, the DUP and its leader have emerged stronger than ever. The DUP leader later lost his East Belfast Westminster seat amid the fallout, but his remarkable political revival was underlined by a poll-topping performance in the same constituency this time round.
Mr Robinson topped the poll in East Belfast and dedicated his success to the memory of murdered Catholic policeman Ronan Kerr. “I only want to say that I want to dedicate this victory to the memory of young Ronan Kerr, a young man who at 25 years of age was blown into eternity by the hands of evil men,” he said in his speech at the count centre. “But he had a vision for Northern Ireland and he wanted to serve his community. And in the words of his mother, she wanted to ensure that people would come out and support the way forward, peacefully, in Northern Ireland to have a united community, a shared society, that they might go forward with real opportunity and real hope.”
The DUP leader added: “I therefore not only dedicate the victory to Ronan but dedicate myself to the vision that he had.”
There was controversy as results were delayed by painfully slow counts across Northern Ireland, with a recount ordered in West Tyrone despite two Sinn Féin candidates, Barry McElduff and the area’s MP Pat Doherty, being deemed elected.
The Ulster Unionist Party leader Tom Elliott was condemned last night after branding Sinn Féin “scum” in an outburst at the Omagh election count centre. He rounded on republicans who were celebrating a major gain in the Fermanagh-South Tyrone constituency by waving tricolours. "I see many people here with flags here, many of them flags of a foreign nation," he said.
When was heckled by republicans, he said he "would expect nothing better from the scum of Sinn Féin".
Sinn Féin later attacked his remarks as being out of step with the co-operation between republicans and unionists at Stormont.
Mr Robinson later said: “I’m pretty sure Tom’s under a bit of pressure at this time so let’s give him a bit of latitude on that.”
But Alliance Party leader David Ford condemned Mr Elliott’s remarks, which he said could act as his political obituary. “These were despicable comments that should be treated with the contempt they deserve by everyone,” he said.
While republicans’ careful vote management again secured five seats in West Belfast, despite the absence of Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams, the DUP was also clocking up multiple seat wins in a number of constituencies. The DUP was further boosted by their success in effectively dismissing the hardline threat of the Traditional Unionist Voice, whose figurehead Mr Allister secured a lone seat in North Antrim.
Mr Robinson attributed a low voter turnout of 54.5 per cent to the public being content with the Stormont government. He said his party had travelled a long political road since it dropped 40 per cent support in a byelection it faced early in the last Assembly term.
“It can only be down to one factor and that is that people like the direction that we are travelling in and like the policies that we are putting forward. I think people want to see a united community and shared community and shared society so that’s where we have been moving.”
Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness, who is set to resume the post of Deputy First Minister, said that he wanted to see better cooperation in the power-sharing government from the SDLP and the UUP. He accused the parties of being in government, while at the same time seeking political gain from attacking government decisions.
“I would like to see those parties as well as the Alliance Party working in the spirit of co-operation,” he said. “If Peter Robinson and I can work together, then surely all of those parties can work with us.”
The Ulster Unionists were rocked by the loss of their chief whip Fred Cobain, who was squeezed out in North Belfast.
The Alliance made gains in the election, with its breakthrough symbolised by a symbolic poll-topping performance in South Belfast for Anna Lo.
The SDLP deputy leader Patsy McGlone was clearly disappointed with his party‘s overall performance and said it would have to take a fresh look at its future direction. “This election should have worked for us, but it didn't.”
The first results did not come in until 7pm last night because of the slow pace of counting, exacerbated by the requirement to first verify not only the Assembly votes but the votes cast in the Alternative Vote (AV) referendum and the local elections.
There were calls for an inquiry into why the counts were so slow. DUP MP for North Belfast Nigel Dodds said on Friday the pace of the counts was “ridiculous”, while former DUP enterprise minister Arlene Foster said the situation was approaching “farce”.
Meanwhile, Northern Ireland voted against proposals to change the mechanism for electing Westminster MPs from the traditional first-past-the-post to the Alternative Vote (AV) method.
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