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Sinn Fein set to become the largest party in...
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Sinn Fein set to become the largest party in Northern Ireland for the first time as counting starts

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Sinn Fein are on course to become the largest party in Northern Ireland for the first time as counting in the Stormont election gets underway today. 

The republicans are forecast to overtake the Democratic Unionist Party in the Northern Ireland Assembly, in what would be a symbolic result. 

But it is also likely to lead to more political gridlock at the assembly, which was collapsed by the DUP in February as it seeks to overturn Boris Johnson‘s Brexit agreement.

Neither Sir Jeffrey Donaldson’s party or the Ulster Unionists have yet agreed to join a power-sharing executive in which Sinn Fein would be able to nominate the First Minister. 

They have argued that a win for Sinn Fein would lead to a referendum on Irish reunification. But Sinn Fein has run its campaign on the cost-of-living crisis.

A unionist party has always been the biggest in the Assembly, and previously the Stormont Parliament, since the formation of the state in 1921. 

Last night initial indications showed that turnout was 54 per cent, down from 64.8 per cent at the previous election in 2017. 

The first of the 90 MLAs are expected to be returned this afternoon but the counting is set to continue into the early hours of tomorrow. 

Boris Johnson this morning said ‘the most important thing is that we continue to support the balance of the Good Friday Agreement across all communities in Northern Ireland’.

The republicans are forecast to overtake the Democratic Unionist Party in the Northern Ireland Assembly, in what would be a symbolic result.

The republicans are forecast to overtake the Democratic Unionist Party in the Northern Ireland Assembly, in what would be a symbolic result.

The republicans are forecast to overtake the Democratic Unionist Party in the Northern Ireland Assembly, in what would be a symbolic result.

It could lead to Sinn Fein's vice president and leader in Northern Ireland, Michelle O'Neill, being nominated as First Minister

It could lead to Sinn Fein's vice president and leader in Northern Ireland, Michelle O'Neill, being nominated as First Minister

It could lead to Sinn Fein’s vice president and leader in Northern Ireland, Michelle O’Neill, being nominated as First Minister

Neither Sir Jeffrey Donaldson's (pictured left)  party or the Ulster Unionists have yet agreed to join a power-sharing executive in which Sinn Fein would be able to nominate the First Minister.

Neither Sir Jeffrey Donaldson's (pictured left)  party or the Ulster Unionists have yet agreed to join a power-sharing executive in which Sinn Fein would be able to nominate the First Minister.

Neither Sir Jeffrey Donaldson’s (pictured left)  party or the Ulster Unionists have yet agreed to join a power-sharing executive in which Sinn Fein would be able to nominate the First Minister.

Boris Johnson this morning said 'the most important thing is that we continue to support the balance of the Good Friday Agreement across all communities in Northern Ireland'.

Boris Johnson this morning said 'the most important thing is that we continue to support the balance of the Good Friday Agreement across all communities in Northern Ireland'.

Boris Johnson this morning said ‘the most important thing is that we continue to support the balance of the Good Friday Agreement across all communities in Northern Ireland’.

Speaking on a visit to a school in his constituency of Uxbridge and South Ruislip, he was asked by reporters about the possibility of a majority of people in Northern Ireland voting for parties that support the current trading arrangements with the EU, and if he will work with those parties to make the Northern Ireland Protocol work.

Mr Johnson said: ‘The most important thing is that we continue to support the balance of the Good Friday Agreement across all communities in Northern Ireland. That’s what we’re going to do. And whatever arrangements we have, they have got to have cross-community support, that’s what the Good Friday Agreement is all about, that’s what the Government is going to do.

‘But as for the rest… we’ll have to wait and see what the results are in Northern Ireland.’

Conservative Party chairman Oliver Dowden had earlier said he is confident the Government can ‘make the case’ for Northern Ireland remaining in the UK if Sinn Fein is victorious.

Asked on Sky News whether Boris Johnson could become the Prime Minister who oversees the break-up of the United Kingdom, Mr Dowden said: ‘Let’s wait and see what the results are from Northern Ireland.

‘If there is a sustained majority of nationalist opinion in favour of a united Ireland, that would have to be put forward in a referendum.

‘That’s beyond the power of the United Kingdom Government. We would have to allow that to happen were it the case’.

He went on to say: ‘Of course we would honour the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement if that was required, but I’m confident that we will be able to make the case for Northern Ireland remaining in the United Kingdom should that that arise, but I don’t think we’re at that stage’.

A shock poll this week raised the prospect of the DUP slipping into third place in Northern Ireland elections.   

The latest survey on Tuesday found the unionists and the Alliance Party are level behind Sinn Fein ahead of the crunch vote in Thursday.

The republicans remains on course to emerge as the largest force after the ballot for the first time – although their support has dipped from 27 per cent to 26.6 per cent.

But the Institute of Irish Studies/University of Liverpool/Irish News research still put them well ahead of the DUP on 18.2 per cent, down from 20.2 per cent.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson’s party was in danger of being overhauled by the non-aligned Alliance, headed by Naomi Long, after it surged from 14.6 per cent.

The Institute of Irish Studies/University of Liverpool/Irish News research put Sinn Fein well ahead of the DUP

The Institute of Irish Studies/University of Liverpool/Irish News research put Sinn Fein well ahead of the DUP

The Institute of Irish Studies/University of Liverpool/Irish News research put Sinn Fein well ahead of the DUP

The Northern Ireland Protocol has cast a long shadow over the election campaign following the resignation of First Minister Paul Givan in February in an effort to force the UK Government to act over the post-Brexit trading arrangements.

This action left the Executive unable to fully function. While ministers remained in post, they were restricted in the actions they could take.

Unionists object to the additional checks on goods arriving in Northern Ireland from Great Britain as a border in the Irish Sea.

Five Assembly seats are up for grabs in 18 constituencies. Northern Ireland uses the single transferable vote (STV) proportional representation electoral system.

The DUP won 28 seats at the last Assembly elections in 2017, just ahead of Sinn Fein which returned 27 MLAs.

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

Source: Daily Mail

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