By Jonathan McCambridge, Rebecca Black and Dominic McGrath, PA
Alliance Party leader Naomi Long has said nothing can be delivered without government in Northern Ireland after her party enjoyed historic success in the Assembly election.
Meanwhile, Ulster Unionist leader Doug Beattie has been elected in Upper Bann despite earlier fears he could lose his seat.
As counting continued into Saturday afternoon, Sinn Féin appeared to be remaining on course to emerge as the largest Stormont party.
By 3pm on Saturday, 66 of 90 seats had been filled.
Sinn Féin currently has 21 seats while the DUP have 19, the Alliance Party 14, the Ulster Unionists (UUP) six and the SDLP on four, with one seat going to TUV leader Jim Allister and one to independent unionist Alex Easton.
Sinn Féin also won the battle for largest vote share with 250,388 first preferences, compared with 184,002 for the DUP and 116,681 for the Alliance Party.
This means it received 29 per cent of first-preference votes, compared with 21.3 per cent for the DUP, 13.5 per cent for Alliance, 11.2 per cent for the UUP and 9.1 per cent for the SDLP.
The Alliance Party is the other main winner from the election, with a surge of support for the cross-community party likely to make it the third largest at Stormont, ahead of the UUP and SDLP, who have both had disappointing results.
Speaking at the Jordanstown count centre on Saturday after party candidate Patricia O’Lynn had won the final seat in North Antrim from DUP veteran Mervyn Storey, Mrs Long said she was excited about what her party could achieve at Stormont.
She said: “We went to the electorate based on a record of strong delivery in the last two-and-a-half years.
“We need to get in there (Stormont) on Monday because without government we can’t deliver anything in Northern Ireland.
“I think given all the challenges that we face, if we squander this opportunity people will not forgive us, so we need to get in there.”
The DUP, led by Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, will comfortably retain its position as the largest unionist party despite a drop in its overall share of the vote.
Speaking at the count at the Titanic Exhibition Centre, Mr Donaldson said unionism “has held its ground”.
“The unionist vote remains strong, we are the largest designation in the Assembly, I think there is a lot of spin around results and I’m very pleased with how the DUP has done in our constituencies,” he said.
“We’ve held a remarkable number of seats where people were predicting all kinds of negative things, so we have strong foundations, we continue to build on them.”
Asked whether Northern Ireland will have devolved government in 2022, Mr Donaldson said: “Let’s cross all the bridges when we get to them.”
He also said he will make it clear next week whether he will return to Stormont or remain at Westminster.
“The party officers will sit down, we will consider what we need to do now to get the action that is required from the Government, I will be making my decision clear on all of that early next week,” he told the BBC.
UUP leader Mr Beattie said voters had flocked to Alliance because they had been “turned off by angry, negative unionism”.
He said: “I am from Upper Bann, I have had to make unpopular decisions in the direction of the party as party leader and that may well have had an effect on me, but these are the sort of things you go through all the time when you’re thinking about an election.
“People are going to the likes of the Alliance Party in droves because they’re being turned off by that angry, negative unionism.”
Sinn Féin’s vice president, Michelle O’Neill, was elected on the first count in Mid Ulster, with Alliance leader Mrs Long topping the poll in East Belfast.
TUV leader Mr Allister retained his seat in North Antrim, but it is looking unlikely his party will win any further seats.
Mr Donaldson was elected on the first count in Lagan Valley.
Ms O’Neill was surrounded by party colleagues and supporters as she topped the poll in Mid Ulster.
She said that Sinn Féin wanted to “together work in partnership with others”.
“That is the only way we will achieve much, much more for people here, whether in terms of the cost-of-living crisis or trying to fix our health service.”
Some 239 candidates stood across 18 constituencies.
Five Assembly seats are up for grabs in each of the 18 constituencies.
Northern Ireland uses the single transferable vote proportional representation electoral system.