By Jonathan McCambridge, PA
Sinn Féin vice president Michelle O’Neill has called on the British and Irish governments to deliver a plan to restore the Stormont powersharing institutions.
It came as her party delivered a stunning success in the council elections, becoming the largest party in local government in Northern Ireland for the first time.
Ms O’Neill said there now needed to be an urgent meeting of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference to plot a route to restore the Assembly.
DUP MLA Jonathan Buckley said voters had endorsed his party’s position of keeping the powersharing institutions down until concerns about the Northern Ireland Protocol are addressed.
Following a lengthy count process stretching into Sunday morning across 11 council areas, Sinn Féin emerged with 144 seats, an increase of 39 from the last council election in 2019.
The party replicated its result in the Assembly election last year when it became the largest party at Stormont.
The DUP has reinforced its position as the dominant force in unionism by winning 122 seats, the same number as in 2019.
The cross-community Alliance Party increased its representation on councils by winning 67 seats, an increase of 14.
It was a disappointing election for the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP, with both parties suffering significant losses.
Sinn Féin secured 30.9 per cent of first preference votes, ahead of the DUP on 23.3 per cent, 13.3 per cent for Alliance, 10.9 per cent for the Ulster Unionists and 8.7 per cent for the SDLP.
The elections took 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.
“We suspected from early on that we would do well given the response that we were getting from the voters, but obviously we have gone on to have a momentous election result,” Ms O’Neill told RTE.
She added: “We haven’t had powersharing now for a year-and-a-half.
“The DUP walked away because they said they wanted to influence the (Northern Ireland) Protocol discussions and negotiations.
“Those negotiations are now complete, so there is no rhyme nor reason for them to stay out of having a locally-elected Assembly and executive delivering good public services for people.
“I am now calling on both governments, as co-guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement, the Irish Government and the British Government, to come together to establish a meeting of the British Irish Intergovernmental Conference to come up with a plan for the restoration of the Assembly because all the while when the DUP stay out of the Executive and the Assembly public services are suffering, the public are suffering because of austerity, because of cuts that are coming directly from London.
“It is not a tolerable situation, there shouldn’t be any more delays and I want to see a plan on the table as to how we are going to get back around the table to make politics work and to have a locally elected Assembly.”
She added: “Top of the DUP manifesto in this election was that they wanted to restore the Executive, they asked people to vote for them to get back into the Assembly.
“Now there shouldn’t be any delay; let’s do that.”
Mr Buckley said holding the same number of seats had been a “extraordinary result” for the DUP.
He told the BBC: “We see a bullying attitude from the Secretary of State, a gang-up from other political parties and a media narrative which laid all blame at the DUP’s door.
“Evidently, the voters have come out and backed the DUP, and backed them strongly.”
He added that his party wanted to see a return of Stormont but it needed to be on a “sustainable” basis.
He said: “It was the number one issue on our campaign manifesto, to restore devolution on a sustainable and long-term basis, and that requires nationalist and unionist consent, because it serves nobody’s interests if we have stop-start devolution on a short-term basis.
“We have stood up to the bullying and bad deals, we have put ourselves forward to get a fair and balanced outcome that can restore devolution on a long-term and sustainable basis. As long as it takes, it’s about getting it right.”
Mr Buckley said the nationalist vote was coalescing around Sinn Féin and added that unionist voters wanted to see their parties working together to maximise results.
Alliance MLA Eoin Tennyson said it had been a fantastic election for his party and said the message was that the Assembly must return.
He said: “Almost 75 per cent of people who cast their first preference votes voted for parties who want to get back to work and I think it is time the DUP reflect on that, listen to what the public are telling them and move on.
“What people want is the Assembly restored and delivering for them, that needs to happen on Monday morning.”
SDLP MP Claire Hanna said her party had suffered a disappointing result but was in a process of modernisation.
She said: “There isn’t any politics around at the moment in the absence of an Assembly, we are not talking about changing people’s lives, about bread and butter issues, and we believe that when governance and outcomes return to politics that that context will better favour the SDLP.
“We are turning around years, possibly decades, of failure to modernise and that requires all hands on deck. A different leader couldn’t have got the DUP back into government, a different leader couldn’t have really matched the financial resources of other parties.”
She added: “We know what needs to happen. The DUP need to take their courage, they need to lead and to give the people of Northern Ireland what they want, and that is governance.”
Ulster Unionist councillor Philip Smith said the challenge for unionist parties was the low turnout of voters.
He said: “The two key statistics of this election were when you compare 2019 unionism had 44 per cent of the vote, that has now dropped to 39 per cent and nationalism is on a par with unionism and I think we need to reflect on that, we need unionism as a whole to think how it grows its offering.
“There is definitely a pro-union majority still in Northern Ireland, the challenge is it is not coming out for political unionism.”