Michelle O'Neill leads Sinn Féin to hat-trick in Mid Ulster
MICHELLE O'Neill led Sinn Féin to a hat-trick of seats in her native Mid-Ulster.
With 10,285 first preference votes, the Co Tyrone woman enjoyed an impressive first electoral outing as the party's new northern leader.
And when her colleagues Linda Dillon and veteran republican Ian Milne crossed the line on the second count, the party defied some pundits who thought it might lose a seat in the majority nationalist constituency.
The party's fortunes in Mid-Ulster were boosted by a 72 per cent turnout, a massive increase on just over 58 per cent last May.
There was unexpected drama in the Ballymena count centre early in the day when Alliance Party candidate Fay Watson was told she could not bring in her six-month-old son Charlie, who she breastfeeds.
Ms Watson said while she knew children under 12 were not allowed, she thought an exception could have been made.
“I was outside the building for about half an hour until I was eventually allowed in... It was very upsetting to me,” she said.
Staff later also refused to allow Ms O'Neill into the leisure centre after she forgot to bring identification with her.
Party colleagues eventually came to the rescue with her handbag and the all important ID.
She said she was delighted with the result.
“We did not set out to top the poll - we wanted to return the strongest possible Sinn Féin team,” she said.
“It's a good day for democracy when you see that, right across the north, the vote has increased by 10%.
“Here in Mid Ulster, it actually went up by 14% - it shows that people are motivated by what we fought this election on.”
The DUP also showed well with Keith Buchanan storming home on the first count with 9,568 votes.
He said unionist voters did not raise the RHI scandal on the doorsteps.
“It was very positive, people saw through what this election was about, it was more than RHI. We had good conversations, people engaged, it was a very engaging election."
The SDLP's Patsy McGlone, who polled 6,419 first preference votes, was also declared elected without reaching the quota ahead of outgoing UUP assembly member Sandra Overend, daughter of former MLA Billy Armstrong.
Mr McGlone said he was never concerned about losing his seat.
“From early on it was becoming apparent what the outcome was going to be,” he said.