The results showed that the political landscape was once again undergoing serious upheaval, with a nationalist party, John Hume's Social Democratic and Labour Party, gaining most votes for the first time in Northern Ireland's 78-year existence. Sinn Fein's vote also rose to a new record.
One theory was that nationalist voters had turned out in force while many Unionists had been dismayed by the obvious deep divisions within David Trimble's party.
As the UUP vote dropped, support for the Rev Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionists rose, indicating that the assembly will contain a strong body of Unionists opposed to the Good Friday agreement. That means Mr Trimble, as the agreement's principal advocate within the assembly, will be dogged by Paisleyite criticisms and attempts to sabotage the provisions for new north-south links.
The share of the vote was SDLP 22 per cent, UUP 21.3 per cent, DUP 18.1 per cent and Sinn Fein 17.6 per cent.
Televised warfare broke out within the Ulster Unionist party yesterday, with the Trimble loyalist Ken Maginnis accusing his parliamentary colleague Jeffrey Donaldson of betraying the party by not supporting the agreement. Mr Donaldson responded that Mr Maginnis "should hang his head in shame" for his role in the party's poorest showing in years.
Mr Paisley's successes were augmented in many constituencies by strong showings by anti-Trimble Unionists. The pattern seemed to support Mr Paisley's claims that recent weeks had seen a significant shift of Protestants who voted "yes" in last month's referendum into the antis' camp.
The election confirmed that the pattern seen in recent years of fracturing within Unionism has continued and accelerated. That, together with the apparently higher turnout on the nationalist side, has let the SDLP challenge the Ulster Unionists' traditional supremacy.
In his North Antrim constituency, meanwhile, Mr Paisley rejoiced. "People have awakened to see this is a pan-nationalist agreement that has to be brought to a standstill," he said. "It is what we intend to do to save the Union. The majority of Unionists who will be in the assembly are those who said 'no'. We are not in the wrecking business. We are going to save the Union.
"Dublin is sick. Tony Blair is sick and the sickest man of all is David Trimble. He is sickened unto death because today the people of Northern Ireland wrote the obituary notice of Trimbleism - I believe it is the end of his leadership of anything in Northern Ireland."
Mr Hume said: "The 'no' people have never given their alternative, but they are in extreme danger of undermining completely the rights of the Unionist people as a whole if they try to wreck this whole process. If they do, they are demonstrating that total fascism would be working in Northern Ireland, because 72 per cent of the people of Northern Ireland voted for this agreement."
Those elected included Mr Hume, Mr Trimble, Mr Paisley and Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein leader. Anti-agreement candidates polled well in Mr Trimble's Upper Bann constituency, while Sinn Fein dominated in West Belfast. Seamus Mallon and Martin McGuinness were also elected.Reuse content