Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald has said her party’s success in Northern Ireland’s local government elections is a message from the people that Stormont must return.
However, DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has insisted his party’s vote is holding up as counting continues to fill 462 seats across 11 council areas.
At 9.30pm, Sinn Fein led the way with 71 councillors elected. The DUP was next on 59, the cross-community Alliance Party had 31, the Ulster Unionists 24, the SDLP 12, with eight others.
In terms of the share of the first preference votes, Sinn Fein had 31.1% of first preferences of votes counted so far.
It means the republican party appears to be on course to repeat its success from last year’s Assembly elections when it emerged as the largest party for the first time.
The DUP secured 24% of first preference votes counted so far, with Alliance on 12.9%, the UUP on 11.7% and the SDLP on 8.7%.
The votes are being counted through the single transferable vote system and the process will continue well into Saturday.
The general pattern around voter turnout appeared to be up slightly in areas which would be regarded as predominantly nationalist/republican and down slightly in areas viewed as unionist majority.
Speaking at Belfast City Hall, Mrs McDonald said the election results showed “a very strong showing for Sinn Fein right across the north”.
She added: “We are very pleased with that. We ran a very positive campaign and we are very pleased that the response to that has just been so positive by way of returns.
“In the course of the election a lot of things were discussed, all the local issues but, in truth, the big issue was that of a return of the executive, the need to have government, the need to have leadership, the need to work together, to make politics work for everybody.
“So, for us, that is the significance of this result, it is undoubtedly a vote for progress, for change, for positivity and, above all else, for working together.”
Party vice president Michelle O’Neill said the British and Irish Governments now needed to come up with a plan to bring Stormont back.
She said: “We ran a very positive campaign.
“That needs to be done now without delay. We would call on both governments to get engaged and actually make that happen.
“There needs to be a plan now for a way back to a restored executive.”
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey said if Sinn Fein emerges as the largest party in local government, unionism will have to “look at where it’s going”.
Speaking at the Lisburn and Castlereagh council count, he said: “Let’s see when the final votes are all counted who is the largest party but, if Sinn Fein do emerge as the largest party in the council elections, I think yet again, as I’ve been saying, consistently, there are lessons that unionism needs to learn here.
“We can’t go on with a situation where turnout in unionist areas is significantly lower than in nationalist areas, you can’t go on with a situation where the unionist vote is continually splitting and splintering.
“The result of that is that seats are gifted to Sinn Fein and to others when the unionist vote is split, and when that unionist vote doesn’t transfer sufficiently.
“So, I think, we really do need to learn the lessons behind all of this, the DUP without a shadow of a doubt is by far the largest unionist party and I think that unionism needs to look at where it’s going and regroup around a strong voice for unionism, and see more co-operation between unionist parties.”
Alliance Party leader Naomi Long said she believes it has been a positive election for her party.
Speaking to the PA news agency at Belfast City Hall, Ms Long said: “It’s been very positive so far but it’s very early.
“Undoubtedly Sinn Fein has had a fantastic election, I think everyone can see that, but with the exception of Sinn Fein I think Alliance is the only party to have made significant gains at this point.”
Sinn Fein’s Gary McCleave was the first councillor to be elected on Friday at Lisburn and Castlereagh Council, securing a seat in the Killultagh district electoral area (DEA).
His election was swiftly followed by the DUP’s Thomas Beckett and Claire Kemp of the Alliance Party in the same DEA.
In Belfast, sitting Lord Mayor Tina Black was among the first elected.
Her Sinn Fein colleague, Geraldine McAteer, was the first councillor to be elected to the capital’s council in the Balmoral DEA.
A short time later, Ms Black, along with DUP candidates Frank McCoubrey and Nicola Verner, was elected in the Court DEA.
At the Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon Council, UUP leader Doug Beattie referred to the possibility of unionism as a whole losing seats.
“We believe that we need to get Northern Ireland working. We are confident unionists, we want to put out a positive, optimistic message and we will continue to do that, nothing will change.”
Northern Ireland’s councils are responsible for setting rates, planning and waste collection as well as leisure services and parks.