Sinn Féin is set to top the poll in an historic first for the party in an Assembly election.
With fierce division and anger within unionism over the Northern Ireland Protocol, DUP support has splintered and many loyalists have opted to support the more hardline Traditional Unionist Voice instead.
Speaking to journalists at her Mid Ulster count, Sinn Féin Vice President Michelle O’Neill said she is feeling “positive” about her chances of becoming Northern Ireland’s first nationalist First Minister as counting continues.
“Obviously I feel very positive, we fought a very positive campaign,” she said.
“We told people about what we were for.
“We said this was an election about the future. It is going to be potentially an historic election for many reasons but I think it was because people wanted us to talk about how we want to work together in partnership with others.
“That’s the only way we achieve much, much more for people here.”
Absolutely delighted to have been re-elected, along with my two friends Linda Dillon and Emma Sheerin.
Thank you so much to everyone who has voted Sinn Féin.
This is an election of real change. pic.twitter.com/RA07yJM0Ss
— Michelle O’Neill (@moneillsf) May 6, 2022
No nationalist party has ever won the most votes in a northern Assembly election and if Sinn Féin wins the most seats - as seems likely - then it will gain the right to nominate Mrs O’Neill as First Minister of Northern Ireland.
As the leader of the second largest party, DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson would be entitled to serve as Deputy First Minister; the position has no less power than that of the First Minister but the symbolism would be a humiliating blow to unionism.
However, Sir Jeffrey has said he would refuse any position within a new Executive unless there is reform to the Northern Ireland Protocol - meaning the province could be without a functioning Assembly again for months - if not years.
The cross-community Alliance party has had a good election and looks set to gain a record number of seats.
The party’s leader, Belfast East MLA Naomi Long, said it was because they had offered people “the hope of better”:
“I think we’re offering them [voters] positive politics,” she reflected.
“We’re offering them pragmatism and we’re offering them the hope of better.
“And I think people want that. I think they know that 24 years on from the Good Friday Agreement we need to get beyond just managing divisions; we need to get to the point where we’re resolving them.”
However, it looks set to be a disappointing day for the UUP and SDLP - the two parties that dominated the province politics for decades.
“The pull of the flag and the pull of the First Minister issue just was too strong for people and we have to think about that, but we'll dust ourselves off and we'll come back again,” SDLP leader Colum Eastwood told RTÉ.
While the UUP’s former leader Mike Nesbitt said he is not confident of retaining his seat amid a surge in support for the TUV in his Strangford constituency.
Main image: Sinn Fein Vice President Michelle O'Neill. Picture by: Liam McBurney/PA Wire/PA Images