Sinn Féin came within one seat of drawing level with the DUP in the Northern Ireland Assembly elections and, for the first time, unionists do not have an overall majority at Stormont.
Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams said: “The notion of a perpetual unionist majority has been demolished,” while the party’s northern leader Michelle O’Neill is to lead talks to restore power-sharing.
Only 1,168 first preference votes separated the two parties, while Mike Nesbitt announced he is to stand down as Ulster Unionist Leader.
The election was called after the collapse of a coalition led by Arlene Foster’s DUP and Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness. Sinn Féin and the DUP have three weeks to establish a government: If a government cannot be formed within that time then, under law, another election will be called. Ultimately, if no power-sharing government is formed, devolved power could return to the UK parliament at Westminster for the first time in a decade.
The DUP’s Jeffrey Donaldson said it would be unfair to focus on “just one individual” when asked about the party’s loss of seats and Mrs Foster’s future as its leader.
Secretary of State James Brokenshire said the election had demonstrated the desire by the overwhelming majority of voters for inclusive, devolved government. “Everyone now has a shared responsibility to engage intensively in the short period of time that is available to us, to ensure that a strong and stable administration is established,” he said.
David Trimble, a former Ulster Unionist Party leader who also served as first minister of Northern Ireland, suggested the parties would need more time to reach an agreement. He said: “If there isn’t an administration put in place then the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is on a legal obligation to dissolve the assembly and have another general election, which I doubt will get us anywhere.”
A total of 64.8% of the electorate voted in the second Assembly election in 10 months – the highest turnout since the vote which followed the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and up 10 points on last May’s vote.
The result means the DUP no longer has enough MLAs – 30 – to deploy Stormont’s controversial petition of concern without the support of others. The petition can be used as an effective veto and had been used by the DUP to block motions, including one to lift the ban on same-sex marriage..