inn Fein is on course for a historic victory in the Northern Ireland Assembly election after receiving the most first-preference votes.
With counting for the 90 Stormont seats continuing, the republican party had won 18 seats, well ahead of the Alliance on eight, the DUP on 12, the Ulster Unionists on four and the SDLP on three.
Sinn Fein looks set to emerge with the most seats after it received 250,388 first preferences, compared with 184,002 for the DUP and 116,681 for the Alliance Party.
This means that it received 29% of first preference votes, compared with 21.3% for the DUP, 13.5% for Alliance, 11.2% for the Ulster Unionists and 9.1% for the SDLP.
Naomi Long’s Alliance Party looks set to be 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.
However, the counting process was slow, with just over a third of the 90 seats filled shortly before 10pm on Friday.
Sinn Fein’s vice president Michelle O’Neill was elected on the first count in Mid Ulster, with Alliance leader Naomi Long topping the poll in East Belfast.
TUV leader Jim Allister retained his seat in North Antrim, but by Friday night his party had not managed to gain any other seats.
He said his party had gained 7.6% of the vote, which he described as a massive increase, but that was not reflected in the number of seats.
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson was elected on the first count in Lagan Valley.
He said he was delighted with his party’s performance in Lagan Valley, adding that it was too early to comment on the overall picture to say what the final outcome might be.
“I think it is going to be very tight at the end as to who will emerge as the largest party,” he said.
“One of the key messages for me is that unionism simply can’t afford the divisions that exist.”
SDLP South Belfast candidate Matthew O’Toole was the final MLA to be elected at the Titanic Exhibition Centre late on Friday.
He described a difficult day for his party, but stressed it was still in the hunt for further seats,
He said there was a move within nationalism towards Sinn Fein as a result of a focus on the First Minister role and a move within the progressive middle ground towards the Alliance Party.
Meanwhile Ulster Unionist leader Doug Beattie was expected to face a challenge in terms of his re-election in Upper Bann.
Ms O’Neill was surrounded by party colleagues and supporters as the result was announced in the Magherafelt count centre.
She received 10,845 first preference votes and the result was greeted by large cheers in the count centre.
Speaking to reporters shortly before her election was announced, Ms O’Neill said she was “very grateful” to be with the people of Mid-Ulster.
Asked about the possibility of her taking the first minister role, she said: “It is very early to say, let’s get all the votes counted.
“I feel very positive.”
She said that Sinn Fein 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.”
Ms Long, speaking in Belfast, dedicated her victory to her father-in-law.
“It’s been a good day so far for Alliance and obviously it’s been a good day for me personally in East Belfast, and also for Peter McReynolds, and we expect that we will hold the two seats there.
“It’s been quite an emotional election campaign for me.
“I lost my father-in-law in the last few weeks, and we buried him yesterday.
“I just want to dedicate this win to him, because without family I could not do what I do, and without their support I would not be where I am.
“I am just absolutely thrilled that I’ve polled so well and I really look forward to later on today and seeing all my colleagues bringing it home.”
The first MLA elected to the Stormont Assembly declared an Alliance Party surge.
Kellie Armstrong was elected for the Strangford constituency on the first stage of the count with 7,015 votes.
“I’ve held back using the word surge until now but I think I’m feeling it now,” she said.
“I’m not going to say a tidal wave at this moment in time, because we’ve a long time to go yet, but it’s amazing and it’s being shown in the vote today.”
Counting is set to resume on Saturday morning.
Speaking to the PA news agency shortly before being elected in Newry and Armagh, outgoing finance minister Conor Murphy rubbished the SDLP suggestion that voters had lent support to Sinn Fein.
“I heard that script in the 1990s about votes being lent,” he said.
“The reality is that people go out and make a choice at the ballot.
“Sinn Fein presented a very positive campaign about what we have done in the Executive and the Assembly and what we want to do.”
Ulster Unionist Robin Swann, who was Northern Ireland’s health minister during the Covid-19 pandemic, was elected after he topped the poll in his North Antrim constituency.
In North Down, independent candidate Alex Easton, who quit the DUP last year, topped the poll.
Some 239 candidates stood across 18 constituencies.
Striking council and education workers staged demonstrations outside a number of the count centres as part of their two-week strike over a rejected pay offer.
The DUP and Sinn Fein are vying for top spot at Stormont, which comes with the entitlement to nominate the next first minister.
A unionist party has always taken the most seats in the Assembly, and previously the Stormont Parliament, since the formation of the state in 1921.
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.
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.
Asked about the elections in Northern Ireland, Prime Minister Boris 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”.
Speaking during 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.”
Five Assembly seats are up for grabs in each of the 18 constituencies.
Northern Ireland uses the single transferable vote proportional representation electoral system.