Sinn Fein buoyed by showing in first preference votes

DUP leader Arlene Foster
DUP leader Arlene Foster

Sinn Fein has come within touching distance of polling the most first preference votes in the Northern Ireland Assembly election.

The Democratic Unionists maintained the top spot, despite their vote share falling as the Sinn Fein share surged.

Sinn Fein leader Michelle O'Neill

Sinn Fein leader Michelle O'Neill

The DUP notched 225,413 first preferences, down 1.11 percentage points on last year, to Sinn Fein's 224,245 - an increase of 3.89 percentage points.

In terms of the overall picture, the DUP secured 28.06% of first preferences to Sinn Fein's 27.91%

The final break-down of seats may not be as close, as results in the proportional representation contest rely on transfers from other parties, but the republicans were nevertheless buoyed by the result.

Arriving at the Belfast count centre, Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams said: "It is a vote and mandate that will have to be respected by the two governments (UK and Irish), by all the other parties, for a step change, for an end to the old status quo, for a new beginning as to how we do our business here."

Stephen Farry of the Alliance party

Stephen Farry of the Alliance party

It will be hours before the wider picture is confirmed, but it is clear that the DUP and Sinn Fein are on course to retain their positions as Stormont's two largest parties.

The Ulster Unionists and nationalist SDLP have failed to make the inroads they predicted.

However, the vote share of the cross-community Alliance Party rose significantly.

The DUP and Sinn Fein will have three weeks to resolve their multiple differences and form a new administration.

The reimposition of direct rule from London is on the cards if the post-election talks fail.

If the three-week post-election deadline passes, Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire is legally obliged to call yet another election.

However, in those circumstances, the Government may pass emergency legislation to suspend devolution for the first time in 10 years ahead of more lengthy negotiations.

The snap poll was forced after Sinn Fein pulled the plug on the powersharing institutions in protest at DUP first minister Arlene Foster's handling of a botched green energy scheme.

The campaign exposed other major policy disputes between the parties.

Sinn Fein's new leader at Stormont Michelle O'Neill, who succeeded the retiring Martin McGuinness, easily topped the poll in her Mid Ulster constituency and was elected on the first count.

Mrs Foster also topped the poll in Fermanagh South Tyrone. However, her personal vote was down on last year and she did not reach the quota required for election on the first count.

In a major blow to the UUP, party stalwart Danny Kennedy lost his seat in Newry and Armagh.

His elimination followed the loss of another Stormont veteran - the SDLP's Alex Attwood in west Belfast.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said Sinn Fein were the "net beneficiaries" of a huge nationalist turnout intent on punishing Mrs Foster.

"The Sinn Fein vote has gone up very highly, which is a result of the overall context of this election, which has been pitched as a battle between the DUP and Sinn Fein," he said.

"Those of us in the middle have been clearly squeezed."

Mr Eastwood failed to top the poll in his Foyle constituency - cradle of the SDLP - where Sinn Fein's Elisha McCallion romped home almost 2,000 votes over the quota.

Putting a brave face on the result, Mr Eastwood claimed his party was not interested in topping polls but will be happy to increase its vote and retain its two seats in Londonderry.

The SDLP leader believes his party support will remain steady.

"Our overall vote is probably in and around where it was, it is just that Sinn Fein have been the net beneficiaries of a huge nationalist turnout to punish Arlene Foster.

"That seems very, very clear now."

Mr Eastwood also paid tribute to SDLP stalwart Mr Attwood who lost his seat in West Belfast.

"Alex has given decades of service to Ireland and he has done an amazing job and given an enormous contribution to our peace process and to our politics .

"We'll miss him very much."

DUP East Belfast MP Gavin Robinson said the party's vote had held up well across the constituencies so far.

"All the circumstances were stacked against us. You will see people want to see a return to Stormont and they believe that we are the right party to lead unionism."

He said Arlene Foster was the right person to lead the DUP.

"Despite the torrents of abuse and smears and innuendo that was levelled against her, the people are sticking with her," he said.