It now looks increasingly likely that Sinn Féin will achieve a historic result to become the largest party in Northern Ireland.

The ramifications will be far-reaching for the next few months - and also for the next few years.

In Northern Ireland's century-long existence there has never been a Republican leader running the region. It is also a symbol of shifting demographics in the six counties.

And it's likely there will be more non-unionist than unionist seats in the Assembly.

On the basis of first preference votes, Sinn Féin would be the largest party followed by the DUP, Alliance, Ulster Unionist Party, SDLP, Traditional Unionist Voice, Others and the Green Party.

Sinn Féin becoming the largest party will also increase pressure for a border poll to be called.

But it is in the hands of Northern Secretary Brandon Lewis to decide whether or not a referendum on a United Ireland should be held.

Today's developments have huge implications for the island of Ireland too.

In the Republic there will have to be a general election by February 2025, if not before.

If current opinion polls were to translate into votes, Sinn Féin could become the largest party on both sides of the border.

Sinn Féin's strategy to focus on household finances in its commentary in the Republic and campaign in the North has paid off on both sides of the border - particularly with soaring inflation eating into disposable incomes.

But the immediate focus after the Assembly election will be on the future of Stormont.

Sinn Féin can claim its leader in the North Michelle O'Neill should hold the position of First Minister if a new Executive is formed.

But the possibility of the DUP being the second biggest party means long and protracted negotiations before an Executive could be re-established.

It is clear from comments by the DUP that the party will want to eradicate the sea border between Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom before going into government with Sinn Féin.

There is a long history of suspensions of the Assembly. Since devolution in 2001 it has been paused for 35% of the time.

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald told RTÉ's Six One News that she wanted to see the Executive functioning again, adding: "People being paid by the public need to get back to work."

But she adopted a softer tone about the DUP and said that her party's approach would be an "inclusive and collaborative" one.

The DUP's Jeffery Donaldson told RTÉ's Six One News that he blamed divided unionism for not delivering extra seats, insisting: "We could have won this on first preferences."

He said: "We accept the outcome. We will sit down with other parties.

"We need to deal with the protocol. We need to remove the unnecessary Irish sea border."

He called on the EU and the UK to alter the protocol before he would nominate MLAs to the Executive.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin also suggested there could be an agreed "landing zone" on changes to the protocol.

Clearly this is what the Government is Dublin will push for with London and Brussels to get the Executive functioning again.

So while Sinn Féin has achieved a landmark victory, there is a long way to go before that win is converted into the party taking its place in a functioning Stormont.


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