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Shape of Stormont to be settled

A tense battle for final seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly election will today decide the make-up of the next Stormont government.

There was major controversy over delays that hit counts across the region yesterday, but it eventually became clear the DUP and Sinn Fein had cemented their dominance of the unionist and nationalist blocs.

The prospect of poor results for the Ulster Unionists, and to a lesser extent the SDLP, left it unclear how the two smaller parties would be ranked when the final picture has emerged.

The cross-community Alliance Party seemed set for gains and secured the symbolic boost of topping the poll in South Belfast.

Around midnight the state of the parties showed the DUP had won 18 seats, Sinn Fein 14, the UUP three, the SDLP three and the Alliance party three.

DUP leader Peter Robinson said: "It is very pleasing and rewarding to hear that right across the province our candidates are doing so well because they put a lot of work into it.

"We didn't ask for a mandate from the people to enhance the standing of the Democratic Unionist Party, we asked for a mandate to keep Northern Ireland moving forward."

Mr Robinson romped home in East Belfast despite having lost the constituency's Westminster seat in the general election.

His career was rocked last year by the revelations that his wife and former MP Iris Robinson had an affair with a teenager and had secured loans from developers to help her lover set up a business.

The DUP leader has since made a major political recovery, underlined by his East Belfast revival.

Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness who was elected with ease in Mid Ulster, said there was "considerable dismay" over the delay in vote counting across constituencies.

Electoral staff blamed the pressure of having to count Assembly votes, local council ballots, plus votes cast in the UK-wide AV referendum.

In a sign of the degree to which counting had stalled, the AV announcement was to be delayed until the early hours of Saturday morning, drastically missing its target time and trailing the rest of the UK.

On the Assembly results, Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams said the smaller UUP and SDLP had tried to criticise the Stormont power-sharing government, despite being part of it, and appeared to have been punished by voters.

He added: "I think the problem for the SDLP and the UUP is that rather than joining in the Executive, keeping their own particular identity and working with the rest of us, they tried to cast themselves very artificially as being in government and opposition at the same time. That doesn't work."

The Assembly results came in against the background of a low voter turnout.

In the 2007 Assembly election the DUP took 36 seats, Sinn Fein 28, the Ulster Unionists 18, the SDLP 16 and the cross-community Alliance Party took seven.

But with each of the 18 constituencies returning six Assembly members, the battle for the last seat will prove crucial in determining the final make-up of the next Stormont administration.