David Trimble's Ulster Unionists and the middle-of-the-road Alliance party suffered most, in an outcome that will bring little cheer to the Government. Most observers believe the results appeared to reduce chances of progress in the inter-party talks due to open on 10 June.
Ironically, in view of the results, the elections had been asked for by Mr Trimble, with Sinn Fein initially declaring itself "implacably opposed". Its 15 per cent of the vote is the highest share it has achieved in any Northern Ireland election.
The outcome represents further erosion of the already- weak middle ground. At the same time, republicans and other observers were not viewing Sinn Fein's success as a mandate for violence but rather as an endorsement of the peace-process approach.
Voters gave conspicuous personal endorsements to Sinn Fein's Gerry Adams and the SDLP leader, John Hume, regarded as the main nationalist architects of the peace process. In Mr Adams's home territory of west Belfast, a huge vote captured four of the five seats for his party. The two fledgling parties which have sprung from the loyalist paramilitary groups gathered a respectable number of votes on their first electoral outing. Although they failed to win a seat in the first round of voting, they amassed enough votes under the complex electoral system to win places at the negotiating table.
The system also benefited three other minor groupings which will none the less be at the table, since the top 10 parties have been guaranteed representation. These are the UK Unionist MP Robert McCartney, the women's coalition, and a Labour grouping.
Sinn Fein leaders urged the Government to recognise its increased mandate and allow it entry to the talks but the British and Irish governments have decreed that entry depends on the IRA calling a new ceasefire.
Although the election was low-key, the turn-out was much higher than many had predicted, reaching almost 70 per cent in some constituencies.
On the Protestant side, the large Paisley vote can only be seen as a clear statement that many Unionists do not want their leaders to sit down to negotiate with Sinn Fein. Mr Trimble's party suffered from the fact that 11 pro-union parties were in the field, leading to what was described as Unionist "vote-shredding". The Ulster Unionist Party's share of the vote fell in almost all constituencies.
In west Belfast the sitting SDLP MP, Joe Hendron, accused Sinn Fein of stealing votes by impersonation, saying fake voters had used forged medical cards. This was denied by Sinn Fein. Last night the Government insisted Sinn Fein could only join the all-party talks if there was a new terrorist truce. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Sir Patrick Mayhew, and the Irish Foreign Minister, Dick Spring, are to have talks in London on Tuesday in an attempt to end the deadlock on arms decommissioning.
Last night Sinn Fein insisted that it must be there. Mr Adams declared: "We've now got a negotiating mandate. The British government cannot say they don't like the result. Either they uphold the primacy of the ballot- box or they do not."
The Prime Minister, John Major, said: "I am delighted by the success of yesterday's elections in Northern Ireland.
"The people ... turned out in large numbers to vote for peace and democracy. This is a great boost to the peace process."
Overall, the Ulster Unionists collected 181,000 votes, compared to Mr Paisley's 141,000. The SDLP took 160,000 while Sinn Fein had 116,000. The UUP got 24 per cent, the DUP 19 per cent, the SDLP 21 per cent and Sinn Fein 15 per cent.
t Unionists last night walked out of a television studio to avoid having a discussion with Mr Adams, writes Colin Brown.
In acrimonious scenes on BBC's Newsnight, John Taylor of the Ulster Unionist Party and Mr Paisley refused to appear with Mr Adams.
Mr Taylor warned Mr Major his party would not accept any compromise over the demand for a ceasefire and IRA decommissioning before admitting Sinn Fein to all-party talks. "If there is any fudge, we will bring down the Government."
Mr Hume said he was sorry he had joined the programme because of the acrimony. He denied an allegation by Mr Paisley that he was supporting Sinn Fein joining the talks with "guns under the table".
Results, page 4
This is a clear vote against any attempt to tinker with the Union
We are still top and people were saying we would not be top
Let's get to the talks and start looking for common ground between our people
How can you make peace if you exclude 22,000 people from west Belfast ?Reuse content