The Alliance Party has decisively broken through to win Northern Ireland’s second MEP seat, coming ahead of Sinn Fein on transfers and far ahead of the SDLP.
In an historic electoral shock, Alliance leader Naomi Long polled 105,928 first preference votes – and saw that figure soar to more than 170,000 votes by the end of the count.
As expected, the DUP’s Diane Dodds and Sinn Fein’s Martina Anderson were re-elected, with Mrs Dodds slightly increasing her share of the vote from five years ago.
But Mrs Anderson was elected last as voters transferred to Alliance from across the political spectrum – despite Sinn Fein topping the poll for first preferences.
The result means that Northern Ireland – which for many years was represented in Brussels by three male big beasts of politics, Ian Paisley, John Hume and Jim Nicholson – is now represented by three women.
It is also the first time that two unionists and one nationalist have not been returned.
Breaking with half a century of European elections, the Ulster Unionist Party – the party which built Northern Ireland – failed to retain its seat and saw its vote collapse from what had been its worst-ever European election result five years ago.
The UUP did not even come close to getting its candidate, former Stormont minister Danny Kennedy, elected.
A pro-Remain unionist who argued that Brexit should be implemented because his side lost the referendum, he polled just 53,052 first preference votes – far short of the 143,112 quota for election and well behind the 83,438 votes polled by outgoing UUP MEP Jim Nicholson.
He came sixth on first preference votes, behind TUV leader Jim Allister and SDLP leader Colum Eastwood.
But the story of the election was the extraordinary rise of Alliance.
Mrs Long, who has campaigned for a second EU referendum, said that the result was “beyond my expectations” and should be seen a vote to remain in the EU.
Her election means that Northern Ireland has elected one pro-Leave and two pro-Remain MEPs.
The DUP’s Diane Dodds held her seat comfortably, increasing her share of the vote by 0.9 percentage points.
Sinn Féin’s Martina Anderson also retained her seat comfortably, but saw her vote fall by 3.3 percentage points, in line with poor results for Sinn Féin south of the border in the European and council elections.
But although the result has been a major electoral breakthrough for Alliance, an avowedly pro-EU party, the overall outcome for leave and remain parties is within one percentage point of the EU Referendum result which saw Northern Ireland vote by 56% to 44% in favour of Remain.
Mrs Long will now have to give up her seat in the Stormont Assembly – although it has not sat for two years – with a party colleague being co-opted in her place.
When asked about the possibility of being in Brussels and Strasbourg for five years if Brexit is reversed, she said: “There will be no one more delighted than me if this ends up being a five-year term.”
DUP leader Arlene Foster said she was disappointed that two unionists had not been returned, but pointed to the fact that unionism was still well ahead of nationalism in first preference votes.
She said that some Brexiteers had decided to effectively boycott the election because of their frustration that the UK has not yet left the EU – something which an Alliance source said was backed up by some of the differential turnouts between strongly Leave and Remain areas.
In her acceptance speech, Mrs Dodds said that she would work with her party colleagues to deliver “a sensible Brexit deal that is good for Northern Ireland, constitutionally and economically”.
Mrs Anderson said that she was delighted to see two pro-EU candidates elected, saying that she wanted to “send a message back to the EU” about Northern Ireland’s opposition to Brexit.
TUV leader Jim Allister came ahead of the UUP – itself a remarkable situation – but saw his vote share slip more than one per cent to 10.8%.
The North Antrim MLA, who during the campaign repeatedly reminded voters of Mrs Anderson’s past conviction for an attempted IRA bombing, delivered a typically ferocious denunciation of the Sinn Féin MEP. As she made her acceptance speech, TUV supporters turned their backs to her.
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood, whose energetic campaign was privately praised by many of his rivals, managed to maintain the SDLP’s vote share – and even marginally increase it – despite the surge towards Alliance. It was his transfer votes, a majority of which went to Alliance, which carried Mrs Long and Mrs Anderson over the line.