Alliance Party leader Naomi Long said she was blown away and left speechless after a stunning election success that has put her on course for a European Parliament seat.
Mrs Long said her 106,000 first preference votes in Northern Ireland – the best ever result for the cross community pro-Remain party – was “beyond expectations”.
The former East Belfast MP, who famously dethroned ex Democratic Unionist leader Peter Robinson from his Westminster seat in 2010, came in just behind Sinn Fein and the DUP in the first round of counting.
While Sinn Fein’s Martina Anderson topped the poll with 126,951, votes, the DUP’s outgoing MEP Diane Dodds, who registering 124,991 first preferences, was the first candidate formally deemed elected, passing the 143,112 quota on transfers at the third stage of counting.
Northern Ireland, which voted 56% Remain in the 2016 referendum, is now on course to return two Remain supporting MEPs and one Brexiteer.
Mrs Long’s vote share was double that of the 53,052 gained by the Ulster Unionist Party, the region’s once preeminent party which had been defending the seat Mrs Long is now poised to capture.
Mrs Long was hugged by jubilant party supporters as she arrived at the count centre in Magherafelt, Co Londonderry, on Monday afternoon.
“I am speechless for once, “she said. “I am really delighted, I am thrilled.”
Her voice broke as she thanked the people who voted for her.
“I take it really seriously and I will serve them to the absolute best of my ability – they have my word on that,” she said.
Mrs Long said the vote showed that people in Northern Ireland still wanted to remain in the EU.
“I was really clear when I went out campaigning what I want the vote to stand for and it’s a vote to remain, it’s a vote to have a ‘People’s Vote’ and that’s what this vote means,” she said.
“For those who try to misappropriate it – and try to put it into unionist and nationalist boxes – I am not having that. The people who voted for me came together from right across the community, regardless of unionism, regardless of nationalism, regardless of all those labels, they came together behind Alliance to send a message.
“And that message is – we want to remain in the EU, give us a ‘People’s vote’ and let us have the final say.”
Mrs Anderson said the result in Northern Ireland had sent a strong message to Europe.
“Absolutely delighted, our strategy has worked,” she said.
“We wanted to send a message back to the EU by, in the first instance, topping the poll and, more importantly, sending two Remainers back.
“Fifty seven per cent of the people who voted here voted to remain in the EU and they have sent a strong message back to Europe that they want to stay in the EU.”
Her party president Mary Lou McDonald added: “I think this result is a resounding rejection of Brexit again. It sends the clearest possible message that people here in the north of Ireland have not consented and do not consent to Brexit and I hope London and Mrs May, and whoever will prove to be Mrs May’s successor, hears that message loud and clear and understands that the DUP, while they have a democratic mandate, do not speak for the majority of people who live in the north of Ireland or indeed across the island.”
Arriving at the count centre, DUP leader Arlene Foster said: “Of course, we would have preferred to have had two unionist MEPs returned – what we have instead is a nationalist MEP, a very strong unionist MEP and an MEP who identifies as neither.
“When I look at the votes, which I think is very important, I notice that unionism is still ahead by over 40,000 votes and of course I am very pleased about that.
“Obviously we would have preferred to see two unionist MEPs returned but I am absolutely delighted with our turnout today and the fact our vote has increased again.”
Asked to explain the Alliance surge, Mrs Foster said there were a number of factors, including a low turnout and her contention that some people who voted Leave felt it unnecessary to register their view a second time.
“We found that when we spoke to people they said ‘we have already voted, we told you what we want, we want out of Europe’,” she said.
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood, who had been hoping to win back a seat former leader John Hume held for 25 years, notched 78,589 first preferences.
UUP candidate Danny Kennedy limped in sixth in the first round, behind the leader of the Traditional Unionist Voice party Jim Allister, who scored 62,021 votes.
Green Party leader Clare Bailey got 12,471 first preferences; Conservative Amandeep Bhogal got 662; Ukip’s Robert Hill 5,115; independent Neil McCann got 948; and Jane Morrice, also an independent, got 1,719.
All five were eliminated after the first stage of counting, with their transfers being distributed to candidates still in the race in the second round.
Mr Kennedy was eliminated after the second count and Mr Eastwood was eliminated after the fourth round.