By Jonathan McCambridge, PA
Counting has resumed in the Northern Ireland council elections with Sinn Féin remaining on course to become the largest party in local government.
As the count stretched into a second day, Sinn Féin had 99 elected councillors, with gains achieved across the North.
The DUP has 85 council seats, the Alliance Party 40, the Ulster Unionists 36 and the SDLP 21, with 18 others.
Three of the 11 council areas have completed their count – Lisburn and Castlereagh, Mid Ulster and Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon, where Sinn Féin has emerged as the largest party for the first time.
The DUP has retained its position as the largest party in Lisburn and Castlereagh.
The votes are being counted through the single transferable vote system, with 462 seats to be filled across 11 council areas.
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.
It is the first electoral test for the parties since last year’s Assembly elections and takes place against the backdrop of the Stormont stalemate, with the powersharing institutions not operating as part of a DUP protest against post-Brexit trading arrangements.
Speaking at Belfast City Hall, Sinn Féin president Mary Lou 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 Jeffrey Donaldson said if Sinn Féin emerges as the largest party in local government, unionism will have to “look at where it’s going”.
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.”
Alliance Party leader Naomi Long said she believes it has been a positive election for her party.
Speaking to the PA news agency, Mrs Long said: “It’s been very positive so far but it’s very early.
“It’s still too early to predict, any of the gains that we hope to make will come much later but it looks good, it’s been a strong turnout for Alliance and from our perspective it’s been a good day.
“Undoubtedly Sinn Féin has had a fantastic election, I think everyone can see that, but with the exception of Sinn Féin I think Alliance is the only party to have made significant gains at this point.”
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.