By Jonathan McCambridge and Rebecca Black, PA
Sinn Fein vice president Michelle O’Neill has hailed a “momentous” election result with the party set to become the largest in councils in Northern Ireland.
As the Northern Ireland local government elections count neared its conclusion on Saturday evening, Sinn Féin had 138 elected councillors by 7pm, with gains achieved across the region.
It means Sinn Féin will have replicated its result from last year’s Northern Ireland Assembly election when it became the biggest party at Stormont.
This is an historic election result, with Sinn Féin councillors elected in many areas for the first time.
People have voted for positive leadership, and for a new Assembly that works for all.
The Sinn Féin mandate is stronger than ever, and I give you all my commitment that I… pic.twitter.com/LzyCNdh2zk
— Michelle O’Neill (@moneillsf) May 20, 2023
Ms O’Neill used the latest election victory to repeat her call for the DUP to return to the powersharing institutions at Stormont
The DUP currently has 117 council seats, the Alliance Party 63, the Ulster Unionists 52 and the SDLP 37, with 32 others.
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson insisted that his party had polled strongly but said unionism needed to learn lessons from the election.
Sinn Féin secured 30.9% of first preference votes, ahead of the DUP on 23.3%, 13.3% for Alliance, 10.9% for the Ulster Unionists and 8.7% for the SDLP.
The turnout for the election was 54%.
Eight of the 11 council areas have now completed their count.
Politics is full of ups and downs, today was special.
Thrilled to be part of a strong DUP team winning 14 seats in total making us the largest party in Ards and North Down Borough Council.
Looking forward to working alongside my colleagues to make a positive difference. pic.twitter.com/st0wX2w1Ql
— Councillor James Cochrane (@jcochrane21) May 20, 2023
Sinn Féin has emerged as the largest party in Mid Ulster, Derry and Strabane and Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon.
It will also have overall control of Fermanagh and Omagh after winning 21 out of 40 seats.
The DUP will be the largest grouping in Lisburn and Castlereagh, Mid and East Antrim and Ards and North Down.
The unionist party will also have the largest number of councillors in Antrim and Newtownabbey.
Sinn Féin is leading the race to be the largest party in Belfast.
The cross-community Alliance Party has made gains and looks set become the third largest party in local government.
But it has been a disappointing election for the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP.
Veteran PUP councillor Billy Hutchinson became the second party leader to lose his seat in Belfast, following Green Party NI leader Mal O’Hara’s failure to get elected.
The votes are being counted through the single transferable vote system, with 462 seats to be filled across 11 council areas.
The general pattern around voter turnout appeared to be up slightly in areas which would be regarded as predominantly nationalist/republican and down slightly in areas viewed as unionist majority.
It is the first electoral test for the parties since last year’s Assembly elections and takes 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 Fein’s Stormont leader Michelle O’Neill described the results as “momentous”.
“It has been a very positive campaign, a very engaging campaign. People have very much engaged,” she told the BBC.
Ms O’Neill added: “It was about positive leadership, it was about a restoration of the executive, it was about making politics work, that has resonated with the electorate and they have come out in such strong numbers that we are now on course to have a very momentous election result.
“It is now obviously about what we are going to do next. In my opinion we need to double down in terms of getting an executive restored and getting our councils up and running again.
“But those councils will always do better when they are working in tandem with the locally elected ministers who support councils.”
Visiting the local government election count at Belfast City Hall, Sir Jeffrey said: “If you actually look at the real results rather than the spin that some commentators are trying to put on it, the DUP has increased its share of the vote from last year and we’re on course to win a lot of seats across all the councils.
“We have made gains in a number of councils.
“The DUP has polled strongly in this election despite everything that’s been thrown at us, despite the challenges we’ve faced, the DUP vote has held up well.”
He put the rise in the Sinn Fein vote down to the “collapse of the SDLP”.
Sir Jeffrey 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.
“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 my one or the other,” he said.
“But I’ll say this, and it’s important to say this: you cannot change direction, and have it all done in the two years that I have been the party leader. It’ll take at least two election cycles.
“We’re in the middle of one election cycle, we’ve got Westminster next year, and that’ll be important also.
“But it’s going to take longer to turn this around, and I’m in this for the long haul, I’m going absolutely nowhere.
“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 Fein 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.
“Sinn Fein asked them to send that message, and they sent it.
“They (Sinn Fein) have totally cannibalised much of the nationalist electorate.
“They were given a good hand and, to be fair, they played it very well, they ran a very good campaign and they deserve the victory they have today.
“Of course the DUP had as their first priority in their election literature to get back to Stormont – let’s see them put their money where their mouth is.”
Northern Ireland’s councils are responsible for setting rates, planning and waste collection as well as leisure services and parks.