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4 March 2017updated 05 Mar 2017 1:16pm

Northern Ireland elections: Sinn Fein surge to one seat behind the DUP

"The notion of a perpetual unionist majority has been demolished," said Gerry Adams. 

By Helen Lewis

Sinn Fein has surged in the Northern Ireland elections, taking 27 seats to the Democratic Unionist Party’s 28. 

The unionists and republicans now have three weeks to agree a power-sharing deal, or face the prospect of a further election or direct rule from Westminster. 

Of the smaller parties, the UUP won 10 seats, prompting the resignation of their leader, Mike Nesbitt. The SDLP won 12 and the non-sectarian Alliance party won 8. 

Overall, the legislature was cut from 108 to 90 members, meaning several veteran members of the assembly lost their seats. 

The election was called after the resignation of Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness as deputy first minister. It followed first minister Arlene Foster, of the DUP, becoming embroiled in a scandal known as “cash for ash”, where the government failed to cap payments for renewable energy, leading to an outsize bill.

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Sinn Fein has previously said it would not work with Foster unless she was cleared over the cash for ash scandal – but an investigation could take a year. Foster has rebuffed suggestions that she should stand down, and Jeffrey Donaldson of the DUP said on 4 March: “I am not aware of any election in the past where the leader of the largest party resigns because they have won the election.”

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Sinn Fein called the result a “watershed” as it finished just 1,168 first-prefence votes behind the DUP. The result also ended the DUP’s overall majority at Stormont, and its ability to use “petitions of concern” to veto legislation it opposes, such has equal marriage laws. 

Gerry Adams said: “The notion of a perpetual unionist majority has been demolished.” Michelle O’Neill, leader of Sinn Fein, said she was “delighted” with the result. 

Click here to read Patrick Maguire on why Sinn Fein might welcome direct rule from London.