Newry, Mourne and Down will be the only authority where unionists failed to qualify for a minority veto on decisions – by only a handful of votes.
However, although Sinn Fein had been tipped to end up as the largest party – aiming for 18 seats – a late surge by the SDLP created a tie with 14 apiece, leaving two Alliance and three independents potentially holding the balance of nationalist power.
Unionists took eight seats, with nine needed to qualify for a veto. They lost critical ground with Slieve Croob UUP councillor Desmond Patterson and party colleague Walter Lyons in Rowallane both losing their seats by very narrow margins.
“The Alliance candidate put me out by 15 votes,” Mr Patterson said. “It was all down to the fact that about 80 UKIP voters did not give any other unionists any transfer votes.”
He added: “Any unionists that sit at home complaining about things and did not turn out to vote handed it to the nationalists.”
The veto would have acted like a petition of concern at Stormont, allowing a block on controversial decisions.
For example, should the issue of the Newry playground named after IRA hunger striker Raymond McCreesh come before the council again, Mr Patterson sees it “being voted straight through”.
However, re-elected SDLP councillor Michael Carr said his party would be working very hard “for all constituents” and said that the matter should be resolved before the new authority takes over.
Observers across the board noted widespread voter apathy, with only a 52.1 per cent turnout, 118,997 people voting for 68 candidates and 41 seats.
In Crotlieve, Warrenpoint, nobody reached the quota, with counting and recounts continug until 11pm on Satuurday.
UUP candidate William Mitchell almost took the critical ninth council seat for unionism, while rising SDLP star Connaire McGreevy failed to be re-elected.
In Slieve Croob, Ballyward and Castlewellan area, only Sinn Fein’s Stephen Burns made the quota. The exclusion of the SDLP’s Shane King at the seventh stage saw Alliance candidate Patrick Clarke squeeze out UUP councillor Mr Patterson.
Newry remained a Sinn Fein stronghold with veteran Charlie Casey topping the poll at 1,693. However, he was the only one who met the quota. Sinn Fein took three seats, ex-Sinn Fein independent Davy Hyland and two SDLP candidates taking the remainder.
In Downpatrick the longest serving member of Sinn Fein on Down District Council, Eamon McConvey, lost his seat, polling only 811 first preference votes.
In Rowallane, Saintfield area, Alliance took a seat for the first time since the early 1970s. The elimination of the Sinn Fein candidate saw an unprecedented transfer of republican votes to Alliance, with sitting UUP councillor Walter Lyons squeezed out 992 to 913 at the sixth stage.
In Slieve Gullion, south Armagh, weak vote management saw Sinn Fein councillor Terry Hearty take a massive 2,135 first preferences, his ousted colleague Daire Hughes only getting 899, allowing SDLP new face Kate Loughran in at stage seven.
In the Mournes all sitting councillors or their replacements were returned, with sitting UKIP councillor Henry Reilly topping the poll.