By Jonathan McCambridge, PA
Sinn Féin has emerged as the largest party in local government in the North for the first time after making large gains in the council elections.
The party’s vice president Michelle O’Neill described the victory as “momentous” and said the result sent a message that Stormont should return.
However, DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson said that his party had polled strongly but conceded unionism needed to learn lessons from the election.
The election count crept into a third day with the last of 462 seats to be filled across 11 councils going to People Before Profit shortly after midnight on Sunday at Belfast City Hall.
At the end of the count Sinn Féin emerged with 144 seats, an increase of 39 from the last council election in 2019.
The party has also 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 Alliance Party increased its representation on councils by winning 67 seats, an increase of 14.
But it was a disappointing election for the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP, with both parties suffering significant losses.
The UUP has ended up with 54 seats, and the SDLP 39, with smaller parties and independents taking the remaining 36 seats.
Sinn Féin will be the largest party in six local government areas, including Belfast, while the DUP will have the largest representation in five councils.
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 turnout for the election was 54 per cent.
It was the first electoral test for the parties since last year’s Assembly elections and 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.
Sinn Féin’s Stormont leader Michelle O’Neill described the results as “momentous”.
She also said the boycott of the Stormont Assembly by the DUP “cannot go on”.
Ms O’Neill said: “The onus is now on the British and Irish Governments to get together and focus their efforts on the immediate restoration of the Executive and Assembly.
“We expect to see an early meeting of the British Irish Intergovernmental Conference.
“The boycott of the Assembly cannot go on and an Executive must be formed.”
Mr Donaldson said his party had increased its vote share from last year’s Assembly elections.
But he added: “I think if truth be told, there are lessons to be learned for unionism in its broadest sense. We need to do better.
“The DUP has had a good election but unionism needs to do better, we need to be winning more seats.
“I’m happy to sit down with my fellow unionists and examine these issues and how greater co-operation can lead a pathway towards more success for unionism in general.”
UUP leader Doug Beattie said he was disappointed with the result but stressed he had no plans to resign his position.
He said: “I made it quite clear that the party elected me, and I am the party leader, and I am going absolutely nowhere. It’ll be the party that decides my fate one way or the other.
“So those people who are a little bit shaky because we’ve had a bad election, they can stay shaky because I’m on absolutely rock solid foundations, and I’m going nowhere.”
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said Sinn Féin had “cannibalised” the nationalist vote.
“It has been very clear when we have been speaking to people that people are really annoyed at the DUP, that they want the executive back up and running and they wanted to send a message,” he said.
“Sinn Féin asked them to send that message, and they sent it.”
Northern Ireland’s councils are responsible for setting rates, planning and waste collection as well as leisure services and parks.