Democratic Unionist leader Arlene Foster has hailed her party’s “tremendous” performance in the Northern Ireland Assembly election after an unexpected repeat of its best ever Stormont haul.
The 38 seats won by the party is the same number it secured in 2011 in an election many, including party strategists, viewed as a one-off historic high water mark.
While much of the campaign focused on whether Sinn Fein could eclipse the DUP as the region’s largest party - a possibility Mrs Foster herself repeatedly warned of - in the event the gap between the two main Stormont parties actually grew, albeit slightly.
Sinn Fein’s 28 seats was one short of its tally in 2011. It was also shy of the significant 30 seat threshold that would have handed the republican party extra power to veto Assembly legislation.
In an election that saw most of the main parties consolidate their seat strength, there were also some notable victories for the smaller parties, with the People Before Profit Alliance (PBPA) and Green Party both winning two seats each.
The DUP’s showing is undoubtedly a strong validation of Mrs Foster’s leadership, coming six months after she replaced the retiring Peter Robinson.
“It has been a tremendous election and I feel very energised by the fact the people have put their trust in us,” said Mrs Foster, who topped the poll in her own Fermanagh and South Tyrone constituency.
“It’s a strong endorsement of the direction of travel. We set out a five-point plan for a safer, stronger Northern Ireland, that is what have discussed right across the country as I criss-crossed across the country.
“We got a very warm reception for it and that has shown in the ballot boxes.
“The people have spoken, we have now received mandates and we must now put those mandates into action.”
Mrs Foster will now return as Stormont First Minister. The former Ulster Unionist, who defected to the DUP in 2004, said she “wanted to get things done” in the term.
“I am very determined, and I am incredibly proud to be the leader of this great wee country that we call Northern Ireland and I am looking forward to leading it over the next mandate,” she said.
Over the coming days, the emphasis will shift to negotiations between the main parties on the shape of the new coalition administration, its agreed programme for government and which parties will take on which ministerial portfolios.
Two things are different in the wake of this election - firstly, the talks on the programme for government are taking place before the executive is formed and, secondly, parties can now avail of the recently-established option of forming an official opposition rather than entering the executive.
Of the 108 candidates elected to Stormont, the DUP has 38, Sinn Fein 28, the Ulster Unionists 16, the SDLP 12, Alliance eight, PBPA two, Greens two, with the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) and independent Claire Sugden winning one each.
The SDLP and Ulster Unionists both had disappointing elections.
The SDLP, the once dominate power within nationalism, has dropped two seats on its 2011 tally. Though the UUP repeated the 16 seat haul of 2011, it did not make the in-roads leader Mike Nesbitt had confidently predicted. Reflecting on the outcome, Mr Nesbitt said: “Not great but not bad”.
For the Alliance Party, which also won eight seats in 2011, it was a case of “as you were”.
Long time Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said he was pleased with his party’s performance, insisting it had to viewed in the context of the “challenges” the executive had faced in the last mandate, highlighting the economic downturn and UK Government “austerity policies”.
“That is pretty remarkable performance given the challenges we have faced over the course of the last Assembly term,” he said.
The Sinn Fein veteran said he was now looking forward to the “new Assembly and new executive” and focusing on what could be delivered.
Whatever the exact make-up of the next power sharing administration, it is sure to face vocal criticism from the opposition benches.
The two seat pick-up by the socialist People Before Profit Alliance was a remarkable feat for a party with no previous representation in the chamber.
PBPA’s Gerry Carroll topped the poll in Sinn Fein’s west Belfast heartland while veteran civil rights campaigner Eamonn McCann won a seat for the party in Foyle.
The Green Party also secured two seats in the new mandate, with party leader Steven Agnew and Clare Bailey winning through.
Jim Allister, leader of the TUV and arch-critic of the last administration, retained his seat, though failed to bring any colleagues in with him.
Ms Sugden, who was co-opted during the last term into the seat held by the late independent David McClarty, won a berth at Parliament Buildings in her own right.
Among the high-profile political casualties were independent unionist John McCallister, who lost his South Down seat after nine years, and outgoing DUP MLAs David McIlveen and Ian McCrea. Former SDLP deputy leader Dolores Kelly also lost out in Upper Bann after being edged out for the sixth seat by outgoing Sinn Fein education minister John O’Dowd.
The Alliance Party’s Naomi Long and Sinn Fein’s Michelle Gildernew will be making a return to the Stormont benches after previously serving as MPs.
Jenny Palmer, who quit the DUP amid allegations she had been bullied, took a seat from her former party when she was elected for the Ulster Unionists in Lagan Valley.
Former DUP health minister Jim Wells, who was embroiled in a series of controversies in the last term, was also re-elected in South Down.
The SDLP faced a tight battle to retain its single seat in West Belfast with Alex Attwood narrowly pipping the DUP’s Frank McCoubrey by 89 votes.
In South Belfast, Claire Hanna, who was co-opted into the Assembly when former SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell stood down, proved successful in her first test at the Assembly polls and was elected just after midnight.
Her running mate, former television reporter Fearghal McKinney was eliminated at stage 10.
Colum Eastwood, who was embarking on his first election as SDLP leader, retained his seat in Foyle.
Sinn Fein’s Culture Arts and Leisure Minister Caral Ni Chuilin was also returned for another term in North Belfast, as was Gerry Kelly.
Former DUP political adviser Emma Pengelly, who was co-opted into the last Assembly, won a seat in her own right in South Belfast, as did former DUP Belfast deputy mayor Christopher Stalford.
The turnout of 54.91% was down, but only slightly, on the 55.64% in the 2011 Stormont election.