Elected Sinn Féin MLA's Emma Sheerin, Michelle O'Neill and Linda DillonIMAGE SOURCE,PACEMAKER
Image caption,

Sinn Féin’s Emma Sheerin, Michelle O’Neill and Linda Dillon were all elected in Mid Ulster

Counting in the Northern Ireland Assembly election has resumed with the republican party Sinn Féin set to win the most seats for the first time.

It is vying with the Democratic Unionist Party – whose vote share dropped – for the entitlement to nominate the next first minister.

A unionist party has been the largest in government since Northern Ireland was formed in 1921.

The cross-community Alliance Party has made gains with 47 of 90 seats filled.

The DUP won 28 seats at the last assembly election in 2017, just ahead of Sinn Féin’s 27.

Next was the SDLP with 12 seats, the UUP with 10, Alliance with eight and the Green Party with two, while People Before Profit and TUV had one MLA each.

So far this time round, Sinn Féin has 18 assembly members (Members of the Legislative Assembly MLAs), the DUP has 13, Alliance has nine, the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) has four and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) has three after a poor performance.

Counting resumed in three centres – Titanic Exhibition Centre in Belfast, Ulster University in Jordanstown and Meadowbank Sports Arena in Magherafelt – at 09:00 BST.

Sinn Féin winning the most seats would be a first for a party in Northern Ireland that designates as nationalist.

Border poll

The ultimate goal of Sinn Féin – whose leader in Northern Ireland, Michelle O’Neill, declared the election a “historic day” – is for Northern Ireland to leave the UK and become one country with the Republic of Ireland.

But a victory for Sinn Féin in this election does not mean a border poll would be imminent.

The Northern Ireland Act 1998 – which followed the signing of the Good Friday peace Agreement – stated that Northern Ireland remained part of the United Kingdom and “shall not cease to be so without the consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland voting in a poll”.

It also stated that the Northern Ireland Secretary would agree to hold a poll if it appeared likely that a majority of people wanted a united Ireland.

Successive opinion polls suggest that is not yet the case, with the most recent, published in April, putting support at about a third.

While party leader Mary Lou McDonald said on Friday night her party was on the cusp of securing the post of first minister, she said planning for a unity referendum would come within a “five-year framework”.

Fighting it out for first minister

While the office of the first and deputy first minister is an equal one with joint power, the allocation of the titles is regarded as symbolically important.

For Sinn Féin to be installed in the role, the majority of unionist assembly members would have to agree to power-sharing, as Northern Ireland operates under a system of mandatory coalition.

But DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has said that he will not be nominating any ministers to the executive until the issue of the Northern Ireland Protocol is resolved.

First pref votes

The protocol is the Brexit deal that prevents a hard Irish border by keeping Northern Ireland inside the European Union’s (EU) single market for goods.

It also creates a new trade border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

Complicated transfer system

Elections for the assembly use the single transferable vote (STV) system of proportional representation.

Voters list candidates in order of preference and once their top-ranked candidate is elected or eliminated, their vote is allocated to their next-ranked candidate.

This can lead to many stages of counting and can take many hours.

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With an overall turnout of 63.6% in Thursday’s election – slightly lower than the 64.8% who voted in 2017 – Sinn Féin got 250,388 first-preferences votes, up from 224,245 last time round.