By Jonathan McCambridge, Rebecca Black and Claudia Savage, PA
Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald has said her party’s success in Northern Ireland’s local government elections is a message from the people that Stormont must return.
However, DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson has insisted his party’s vote is holding up as counting continues to fill 462 seats across 11 council areas.
Shortly after 6pm, Sinn Féin led the way with 47 councillors elected. The DUP was next on 35, the cross-community Alliance Party had 15, the Ulster Unionists 11, the SDLP six, with six others.
In terms of the share of the first preference votes, Sinn Féin had 30.6 per cent, more than 7 per cent higher than the first preference share it enjoyed in the last council elections in 2019.
it’s becoming clear from today’s results that people across the North have seized the opportunity to send a clear signal that it is time to get the Assembly up and running.
People are determined to see the positive transformation of our politics.
Sinn Féin went into this… pic.twitter.com/qtKASNBeZo
— Michelle O’Neill (@moneillsf) May 19, 2023
It means the party appears to be on course to repeat its success from last year’s Assembly elections when it emerged as the largest party for the first time.
The DUP secured 23.7 per cent of first preference votes, with Alliance on 12.8 per cent, the UUP on 12 per cent and the SDLP on 8.5 per cent.
The votes are being counted through the single transferable vote system and the process will continue well into Saturday.
The general pattern around voter turnout appeared to be up slightly in areas which would be regarded as predominantly nationalist/republican and down slightly in areas viewed as unionist majority.
The Stormont assembly has not been operational for more than a year due to the DUP’s boycott of the power-sharing institutions in protest against post-Brexit trading arrangements.
Speaking at Belfast City Hall, Mrs McDonald said the election results showed “a very strong showing for Sinn Féin right across the north”.
She added: “We are very pleased with that. We ran a very positive campaign and we are very pleased that the response to that has just been so positive by way of returns.
“In the course of the election a lot of things were discussed, all the local issues but, in truth, the big issue was that of a return of the executive, the need to have government, the need to have leadership, the need to work together, to make politics work for everybody.
“The need for Michelle O’Neill to come into post as the first minister for all.
“So, for us, that is the significance of this result, it is undoubtedly a vote for progress, for change, for positivity and, above all else, for working together.”
Party vice president Michelle O’Neill said the British and Irish Governments now needed to come up with a plan to bring Stormont back.
She said: “We ran a very positive campaign.
“But on the doors the conversation was very much centred around the need to have a restored Assembly and executive up and running.
“That needs to be done now without delay. We would call on both governments to get engaged and actually make that happen.
“There needs to be a plan now for a way back to a restored executive.”
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey said if Sinn Féin emerges as the largest party in local government, unionism will have to “look at where it’s going”.
Sinn Féin’s Geraldine McAteer is the first councillor elected in Belfast. She was elected in the Balmoral district electoral area with 2,037 votes. pic.twitter.com/lLmVAup2r3
— Rebecca Black (@RBlackPA) May 19, 2023
Speaking at the Lisburn and Castlereagh council count, he said: “Let’s see when the final votes are all counted who is the largest party but, if Sinn Féin do emerge as the largest party in the council elections, I think yet again, as I’ve been saying, consistently, there are lessons that unionism needs to learn here.
“We can’t go on with a situation where turnout in unionist areas is significantly lower than in nationalist areas, you can’t go on with a situation where the unionist vote is continually splitting and splintering.
“The result of that is that seats are gifted to Sinn Féin and to others when the unionist vote is split, and when that unionist vote doesn’t transfer sufficiently.
“So, I think, we really do need to learn the lessons behind all of this, the DUP without a shadow of a doubt is by far the largest unionist party and I think that unionism needs to look at where it’s going and regroup around a strong voice for unionism, and see more co-operation between unionist parties.”
Sinn Féin’s Gary McCleave was the first councillor to be elected on Friday at Lisburn and Castlereagh Council, securing a seat in the Killultagh district electoral area (DEA).
His election was swiftly followed by the DUP’s Thomas Beckett and Claire Kemp of the Alliance Party in the same DEA.
In Belfast, sitting Lord Mayor Tina Black was among the first elected.
Her Sinn Féin colleague, Geraldine McAteer, was the first councillor to be elected to the capital’s council in the Balmoral DEA.
A short time later, Ms Black, along with DUP candidates Frank McCoubrey and Nicola Verner, was elected in the Court DEA.
At the Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon Council, UUP leader Doug Beattie referred to the possibility of unionism as a whole losing seats.
“The question is will unionism as a whole lose seats in this election, if they do that, it’s a unionism-wide issue that has to be dealt with – as far as my party is concerned, we’ve set our path, I’m not going to change that path,” he said.
“We believe that we need to get Northern Ireland working. We are confident unionists, we want to put out a positive, optimistic message, and we will continue to do that, nothing will change.”
Northern Ireland’s councils are responsible for setting rates, planning and waste collection as well as leisure services and parks.