The extent of the Alliance surges in the Northern Ireland Assembly election was becoming clear by mid-afternoon on Saturday as the party picked up seat after seat in a run that could see it more than double its representation at Stormont.
With 68 seats out of 90 declared just before 4pm, Sinn Féin was on 21 seats and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) 19, the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) seven and the Social Democratic and Labor Party (SDLP) four, with Sinn Féin still on course to become the largest party on 27 seats.
Alliance was on 15 seats, but could potentially gain another two or three more.
That the party is in the mix in East Derry for an eighteenth seat – a constituency in which the party was generally regarded to have little chance – demonstrates the extent to which Alliance’s performance has exceeded its wildest dreams.
Arguably that moment had already come with the election of Patricia O’Lynn in North antrim; not only was she the constituency’s first Alliance MLA, she was also its first female representative.
Ms O’Lynn was hailed by her party leader as a “breath of fresh air”; the days of “stale, male, pale” politics are over in North Antrim, said Naomi Long.
Also over in North Antrim was its reputation as a DUP stronghold. Ms O’Lynn took out a big scalp – Mervyn Storey, a DUP MLA for the area since 2003 and a former minister – and reduced the DUP representation in the area to only one MLA, on par with Alliance.
The DUP’s other loss so far was another former minister, Peter Weir, who failed to make the cut in Strangford, the only constituency where the DUP was running three candidates.
Former junior minister Gary Middleton is also under pressure from the UUP’s Ryan McCready – who left the DUP last year – in Foyle.
After a poor day on Friday, there was better news for the UUP on Saturday as the former leader Mike Nesbitt and current leader Doug Beattie held their seats in Strangford and Upper Bann respectively.
There were fears Mr Beattie could lose his seat. He said on Saturday: “I think you never take the electorate for granted . . . I have had to make unpopular decisions in the direction of the party as party leader and that may well have had an effect on me, but these are the sort of things you go through all the time when you’re thinking about an election.
“People are going to the likes of the Alliance Party in droves because they’re being turned off by that angry, negative unionism. It might take a while to change that psyche.”
Despite its increase in vote share the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) has yet to pick up a seat beyond that of its leader Jim Allister after its best chance of a second seat, Stephen Cooper, was eliminated in Strangford.
In north Belfast the outgoing minister for infrastructure, the SDLP’s Nichola Mallon, is under threat from Nuala McAllister of Alliance. Now on the ninth count, Ms McAllister has edged ahead and is regarded as more likely to pick up the remaining transfers.
Earlier on Saturday Paula Bradshaw was elected for Alliance in South Belfast, followed by her running mate Kate Nicholl. Green Party leader Clare Bailey lost her seat in the constituency.
Sinn Féin also won the battle for largest vote share with 250,388 first-preferences, compared with 184,002 for the DUP and 116,681 for the Alliance Party.
This means that it received 29 per cent of first-preference votes, compared with 21.3 per cent for the DUP, 13.5 per cent for Alliance, 11.2 per cent for the UUP and 9.1 per cent for the SDLP.
Leader of the DUP Jeffrey Donaldson said the party was doing “extremely well” in the election. The party will comfortably retain its position as the largest unionist party despite a drop in its overall share of the vote.
Speaking at the count at the Titanic Exhibition Centre, Mr Donaldson said unionism “has held its ground”.
“The unionist vote remains strong, we are the largest designation in the Assembly, I think there is a lot of spin around results and I’m very pleased with how the DUP has done in our constituencies,” he said.
“We’ve held a remarkable number of seats where people were predicting all kinds of negative things, so we have strong foundations, we continue to build on them.”
Asked whether Northern Ireland will have devolved government in 2022, Mr Donaldson said: “Let’s cross all the bridges when we get to them.”
He also said he will make it clear next week whether he will return to Stormont or remain at Westminster.
“The party officers will sit down, we will consider what we need to do now to get the action that is required from the government, I will be making my decision clear on all of that early next week,” he told the BBC.
After his election, Mr Donaldson delivered a personal challenge to British prime minister Boris Johnson to address outstanding issues around the post-Brexit Northern Ireland protocol, which unionists oppose because it imposes economic barriers between the North and Britain.
He said: “I recognize that we have our differences, particularly in relation to the protocol, but I think we all accept that this is a problem that needs to be addressed, and the sooner it is addressed, the better for all of us. ”
Ms O’Neill said Sinn Féin wanted to “together work in partnership with others” to “achieve much, much more for people here, whether in terms of the cost-of-living crisis or trying to fix our health service”. – Additional PA reporting