Foster - I’m confident I will be back as First Minister

PACEMAKER PRESS 06/05/2016.  2016 Northern Ireland Assembly Election.  Votes are counted at Omagh Leisure centre as Voters took to the polls across Northern Ireland.  Pictured is DUP leader Arlene Foster with Lord Morrow.  PICTURE MARK MARLOW/PACEMAKER PRESS
PACEMAKER PRESS 06/05/2016. 2016 Northern Ireland Assembly Election. Votes are counted at Omagh Leisure centre as Voters took to the polls across Northern Ireland. Pictured is DUP leader Arlene Foster with Lord Morrow. PICTURE MARK MARLOW/PACEMAKER PRESS

DUP leader Arlene Foster has expressed confidence she will be returned as Northern Ireland’s First Minister.

As the votes continue to be counted across Northern Ireland, Mrs Foster said her party was on course to again emerge as the region’s largest party.

“I am confident that I will be the first minister of Northern Ireland,” she said after topping the poll in Fermanagh and South Tyrone.

At 5pm, 21 of the 108 seats were filled, the DUP had won nine, Sinn Fein eight, with one each for the Ulster Unionists, SDLP, Alliance Party and People Before Profit Alliance.

Mrs Foster added: “I feel great, it is a great endorsement of our campaign in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, and indeed across Northern Ireland, and I am absolutely delighted.

“I am confident that I will be the first minister of Northern Ireland.”

During the campaign, Ms Foster placed particular onus on beating Martin McGuinness in the race to see which one of them takes the First Minister’s job ahead of the Deputy First Minister’s job.

It would require a significant electoral turnaround for Sinn Fein to topple the DUP as the largest party.

The final outcome of the vote is not expected until Saturday afternoon.

In a clear sign the larger parties will not have it all their own way, Gerry Carroll, of the People Before Profit Alliance, stormed home in west Belfast, topping the poll ahead of high-profile Sinn Fein rivals.

The count for the 18 constituencies in the proportional representation contest began at 8am on Friday with the process of verifying ballots.

The poll was the first chance to vote for people born after the historic Good Friday Agreement.

Eighteen years on from the signing of the 1998 peace accord which paved the way for a devolved power-sharing government, voters were selecting the latest batch of MLAs to represent them at Stormont. There were 276 candidates standing across the 18 constituencies.

The overall turnout of valid and invalid votes has fallen on the 2011 Assembly election, but only slightly. More votes were actually cast than five years ago, but in the context of a larger electorate.

In 2011, 674,103 people went to the polls out of an electorate of 1,210,009 - a turnout of 55.71%. This year, 703,744 ballots were cast out of an electorate of 1,281,595 - giving a 54.91% turnout.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood predicted an “Independents’ day” across Northern Ireland.

The 33-year-old, presiding over his first election in charge of the party, said early results appeared to show a voter trend in the Republic spreading across the border.

“This is the year of the Independents,” he said.

“We have seen it in the south, we’ve seen it in west Belfast, we’ve seen it right across the north, where people who are frustrated with the lack of delivery from this executive are voting Independent in large numbers.”