The first MLA elected to the Stormont Assembly has declared an Alliance Party surge.
Kellie Armstrong was elected for the Strangford constituency on the first stage of the count with 7,015 votes.
Congratulated by Alliance leader Naomi Long, Ms Armstrong said it is the start of a surge for the party in the Assembly elections.
First MLA elected is Kellie Armstrong (Alliance) in the Strangford constituency pic.twitter.com/8mlmkgRvrS
— Rebecca Black (@RBlackPA) May 6, 2022
“I’m absolutely delighted,” Ms Armstrong said after the announcement. “I’ve held back using the word ‘surge’ until now but I think I’m feeling it now. I’m absolutely delighted to top the poll.
“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.”
Earlier Ms Long said it looks like it has been a positive election for her party.
Arriving at the election count at the Titanic Exhibition Centre she said: “There is a long way to go before we have any results and as always, until it is actually there on the board and counted, I never take anything for granted. But yeah it looks like it has been a good day for Alliance.”
“We fought a positive campaign, we fought a campaign that was focused on what we could do if we could get a government up and running. That has to be the focus and I think people responded to it.”
— Dominic McGrath (@McGrathDominic) May 6, 2022
Earlier, Sinn Fein vice president Michelle O’Neill appeared upbeat ahead of the first results to be declared in the Stormont election.
Ms O’Neill arrived at the Magherafelt count centre just before 1pm on Friday. The Mid Ulster candidate is tipped to become first minister of Northern Ireland if her party can pull off a historic victory in the Assembly elections.
Ms O’Neill was swamped by local and international media as she arrived at the count centre. While upbeat, she declined to speculate about what the results might be.
“It’s very early days, the votes are still being counted,” she told reporters. “It’s been a really, really positive election campaign.”
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, whose party had been expected to shed votes, also arrived in the count centre in Jordanstown on Friday to await the results of his Lagan Valley constituency.
Official turnout figures announced on Friday morning as counting started included 61.74% in North Belfast, 58.42% in Strangford, 60.11% in East Antrim, 64.36% in South Belfast, 60.13% in North Down and 64.66% in West Belfast.
The overall average turnout at the last Northern Ireland-wide Assembly election in 2017 was 64.8%.
In Upper Bann turnout was recorded as 62.48%, while in Newry and Armagh turnout was recorded as 68.49%.
Turnout in Foyle was 61.64% and 66.90% in West Tyrone. In Fermanagh and South Tyrone turnout was 69.09%.
Counting is set to continue into the early hours of Saturday.
Some 239 candidates are running 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.
Outside the Titanic Exhibition Centre, Belfast City Council worker and Unite shop steward John Moore said they want politicians to take note that “this isn’t going to stop until people come to the table and talk to us”.
“We were offered a 1.75% pay rise after nearly 12 years of pay cuts and pay freezes, and that 1.75% is just another pay cut, people have to meet their household bills, pay for food and energy and they just can’t do it,” he said.
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.
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood appeared to play down expectations for his party as he arrived at Magherafelt.
He said that voters may have “lent” their vote to Sinn Fein.
“It’s going to be a long day and maybe a long night as well,” he told the PA news agency. “I think there has been a big vote for Sinn Fein on the nationalist side.
“People decided to send a very clear message that nationalists should not be locked out of the first minister position. I understand that motivation and I think a lot of people have lent Sinn Fein their vote.”
But Mr Eastwood insisted that votes were still being counted.
“It is going to be tough for us, because so many people have wanted to send a message to the DUP that nationalists shouldn’t be locked out of the top position,” he said.
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 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.”
DUP MP Sammy Wilson warned earlier that his party would not re-enter the Executive without Government action over the protocol.
He told the BBC: “I’ll tell you one thing, if there’s no legislation in the Queen’s Speech and no plans to deal with the protocol then we’ve made it very clear the assembly can’t function if the poison of the protocol is still there.”
But Sinn Fein MP John Finucane said people were more concerned about bread-and-butter issues.
He said: “I believe the DUP during the campaign outlined a five-point plan as to how they were going to grow our economy, fix our health service and help working families.
“I don’t see how that is possible without an Executive – in fact, it’s not possible without an Executive.”
Five Assembly seats are up for grabs in each of the 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.
This year, the DUP has been regarded as playing it safe, running 30 candidates, while Sinn Fein is running 34.
Meanwhile, the UUP is running 27 candidates, the Alliance Party is running 24, the SDLP is fielding 22, TUV is putting up 19 candidates, the Green Party is running 18 and People Before Profit 12, as is Aontu, while the Workers Party is running six candidates and the PUP three.
The Irish Republican Socialist Party (IRSP) and the Socialist Party are each fielding two candidates while the Northern Ireland Conservatives, Cross Community Labour Alliance (CCLA), Resume NI and Heritage Party are each running one candidate.
There are 24 independent candidates.