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Sinn Féin prospers as turnout swells

THOSE who argued that this week's assembly poll was an 'election no-one wanted' were proved emphatically wrong by the highest turnout for a Stormont election since that which followed the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.

As the process of excluding candidates and transferring votes continues today to return MLAs to the remaining undecided seats, it is already clear that Sinn Féin has benefited most.

The Alliance Party, too, polled well - especially in the context of the assembly shrinking from 108 to 90 seats - while the DUP will be relieved that it has mostly held its own.

Bigger questions, however, remain for the SDLP and UUP, neither of whom made their hoped for advances.

The UUP, in particular, is in disarray following Mike Nesbitt's decision to resign as leader.

Sinn Féin, in an impressive performance, grew its first preference vote share by 3.9 per cent to 27.9 per cent - a mere 0.2 per cent behind the DUP.

This will be regarded by Sinn Féin as nothing other than a vindication of its strategy to trigger the election in the first place, and it is striking how well it has managed the departure of Martin McGuinness from the Stormont stage and the elevation of Michelle O'Neill to the top of its northern leadership.

There is little doubt that the nationalist electorate as a whole was galvanised by a range of factors including the RHI scandal, uncertainty over Brexit and the DUP's Irish language insults.

The fact that the nationalist electorate has chosen to gravitate to Sinn Féin will be of enormous concern to the SDLP, who lost Alex Attwood in West Belfast.

Ulster Unionists, however, face a major rebuilding job. An underwhelming campaign was further derailed by Mr Nesbitt's principled, though not pragmatic, pledge to vote for the SDLP ahead of unionist candidates. The loss of a senior figure like Danny Kennedy underlines the party's difficulties.

Tough negotiations lie ahead but voters have unequivocally given the DUP and Sinn Féin the challenge - again - of piecing together a government. This time, it must last longer than 10 months.

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