FIRST Minister Nicola Sturgeon has congratulated Sinn Fein after it won a historic victory in the Stormont elections.

The republican party - which wants to see a reunified Ireland - won the most seats in the Northern Irish parliament for the first time in a century.

With two seats left to declare in the 90-seat assembly, Sinn Fein reached 27 seats while the DUP were behind on 24.

The Alliance Party had 17, the Ulster Unionists (UUP) nine, the SDLP seven, and there were four others.

Reports from the BBC say the final two seats - in Foyle - might not be declared until the small hours of Sunday morning.

The National: Michelle O'Neill

The election result “ushers in a new era” in Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein vice-president Michelle O’Neill (above) said.

Eyes will turn to potential referendums (one for the north and one for the south) on the reunification of Ireland. 

Speaking on Friday, Sinn Fein's leader Mary Lou McDonald said that her party would be pushing for reunification, but it had to be done in a way that was “planned, orderly, democratic, and entirely peaceful”.

“I would say this, in the first instance we need to start planning now for the change ahead, and that has to involve all of us.”

Sturgeon congratulated O'Neill, who will be the next first minister if the DUP agree to follow the constitutional arrangements in place, and Sinn Fein leader McDonald.

The SNP leader wrote: "Many congratulations to @moneillsf and @MaryLouMcDonald on a truly historic result for Sinn Fein.

"I wish Michelle & her colleagues - and all Northern Ireland’s elected representatives - the very best for what comes next and hope to see the NI government functioning again soon."

Conservative Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis said: “I encourage the parties to form an executive as soon as possible. The people of Northern Ireland deserve a stable and accountable local government that delivers on the issues that matter most to them."

In her declaration speech in Magherafelt after topping the poll in Mid Ulster, O’Neill said: “Today represents a very significant moment of change.

“Today ushers in a new era which I believer presents us all with an opportunity to reimagine relationships in this society on the basis of fairness, on the basis of equality and the basis of social justice.

“Irrespective of religious, political or social backgrounds my commitment is to make politics work."

In a press conference shortly afterwards, party president McDonald said the Stormont powersharing executive needed to be re-established.

She said: “We look forward to an executive being established, I look forward to Michelle O’Neill being nominated as first minister and to have politics that delivers for people.

“We would appeal to everybody to take stock, take breaths and really assess the huge responsibility that all of us carry.

“Collectively we have an obligation to get government up and running.”

The DUP collapsed Northern Ireland’s powersharing Executive earlier this year as part of its protest against the Northern Ireland Protocol, and has vowed not to re-enter government until their concerns are met.

The National: DUP Leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson

Led by Jeffrey Donaldson (above), the DUP will comfortably retain its position as the largest Unionist party despite a drop in its overall share of the vote.

Speaking at the count at the Titanic Exhibition Centre, Donaldson said Unionism “has held its ground”.

“The Unionist vote remains strong, we are the largest designation in the Assembly, I think there is a lot of spin around results and I’m very pleased with how the DUP has done in our constituencies,” he said.

The Alliance Party has also enjoyed a successful election and will emerge as the third biggest party at Stormont, while the UUP and SDLP have had disappointing results.

Ulster Unionist leader Doug Beattie was elected in Upper Bann despite earlier fears he could lose his seat.

However, there was upset for the SDLP when deputy leader and outgoing Stormont infrastructure minister Nichola Mallon lost her seat in North Belfast.