SINN Fein president 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 last night, 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 today.

The Stormont assembly has not been operational for more than a year due to the DUP’s boycott of the powersharing institutions in protest against post-Brexit

trading arrangements.

Speaking at Belfast City Hall, 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 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.”

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said if Sinn Fein emerges as the largest party, 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 emerge as the largest party in the elections, there are lessons that unionism needs to learn here.”