Northern Ireland Election 2017

NI Assembly election: Voters react to result

Sinn Féin's Michelle O'Neill and DUP leader Arlene Foster
Image caption Michelle O'Neill's Sinn Féin has moved to within one seat of Arlene Foster's DUP in Stormont

The DUP has held onto its crown as the Northern Ireland Assembly's biggest party, but Sinn Féin has cut deep into their lead.

DUP MLAs went into the poll with 10-seat advantage over Sinn Féin, but now, in a trimmed down Stormont, just one seat separates the two parties.

Arlene Foster repeatedly claimed during her campaign that Sinn Féin could return as the biggest party.

So was it a close shave for the DUP leader? And what do voters make of it?

Ruairi O'Neill, who owns Sonny's Barbers shop on Belfast's Ormeau Road, said the DUP's attitude towards republicans while in government was partially responsible for the rise in the pro-nationalist vote.

Image caption Ruari O'Neill said there were probably a lot of protest votes for Sinn Féin

"I think Sinn Féin got a bigger vote because of the way the DUP were treating them... slagging them off, trying to divert away from the actual scandal [surrounding a botched heating scheme]," he said.

Having given his first preference to the Green Party's Claire Bailey in last May's election, this time Mr O'Neill switched back to Sinn Féin.

But his decision was mainly influenced by local issues - as well as the powerlessness of smaller parties, he said.

Standing outside a bookmakers shop on the Ormeau Road, local resident William Russell would not have bet against the DUP and Sinn Féin returning as the two largest parties.

Image caption William Russell said the botched heating scheme scandal had damaged Arlene Foster

"I don't think it's going to make the slightest bit off difference," he said.

"It's politics in Northern Ireland - they vote by their families. They won't change."

Mr Russell, who voted Green, said the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scandal damaged the DUP and blamed its leader, Arlene Foster.

"She was the lady who instigated it [the RHI scheme] and she was the one in charge of it, and she let it go on."

But in a hairdressers in the unionist heartland of Belfast's Sandy Row, the RHI scandal did not have any bearing on DUP supporter Joyce Elliott, who said she switched allegiance from the UUP to the DUP.

"I just felt they were the stronger party this time and I just decided I'd give them a chance and see what happens," she says.

She was against a return to direct rule and thought the DUP and Sinn Féin would have to form a government "of some description".

"I can't see that it's going to do any good if they don't," she said.

Kurl up and dye

In east Belfast, another DUP voter said the election should never have been called and had simply wasted "nearly £6m of public money".

An Ulster Unionist voter who did not want to be named said she felt sorry for Mike Nesbitt, who announced his resignation as the party's leader after its poor showing at the polls.

"I agreed with his policies," she says, adding that he had stepped down too soon.

The middle ground has been squeezed and shifted too in this election, with the nationalist SDLP overtaking Mr Nesbitt's Ulster Unionist Party for the first time.

In the Ormeau Road's Kurl up and Dye salon, one SDLP voter said she was quite pleased with the party's performance.

She expressed surprise at Sinn Féin's success, but believed the party would go back into government with the DUP.

"We have come through situations before that were more difficult to overcome," added the woman, who also did not want to be named.

Across the road in Corrie's butcher shop, Stormont's sectarian carve-up did not impress Belfast teacher Oonagh.

'Belfast? No, Hellfast!'

The former SDLP voter switched her first preference to the Alliance Party.

"Years ago, it was a green and orange vote," she said. "Now I would not be voting at all according to religious grounds.

"I work in education I feel very, very strongly about the cuts. I see how staff are suffering, I see how children are suffering."

She added she voted on the basis of "on-the-ground" issues, like education, healthcare and equality.

"Those are the issues that I think are important. It's not about 'are we part of the UK, are we part of Ireland?'"

Behind the counter, butcher Stephen Carson said he had not voted for years, as he had been turned off by a series of financial scandals in Stormont and did not think his vote would make a difference.

Image caption Stephen Carson thought Northern Ireland was heading for a period of direct rule

"I'm not really into tribal politics," he said. "Why should I vote for someone else to have a better life than me?"

So did the butcher think Stormont's power-sharing government would return any time soon?

"No chance: I think we're going for direct rule," he said.

In the Original Just Gents Barber Shop next door, staff member Jim Clarke said he voted for the UUP "in defiance" of his family's tradition.

Image caption Jim Clarke said there was no hope in Northern Ireland

"There's still a lot of bigotry in this county," he said. "It's cursed. Belfast? No - Hellfast!"

But one of his customers, Colum Campbell, was more optimistic.

"I just wish everybody would get on together, and that's really all it comes down to - so that you could go anywhere and not have to worry about what place you're in or any of that," he said.

"If we put our heads together, there's no reason why it couldn't happen."

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