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Friday, June 26, 1998 Published at 21:46 GMT 22:46 UK

SDLP success but Trimble likely First Minister

John Hume, left, is celebrating a record performance for his party

The nationalist SDLP party is celebrating a record performance in the Northern Ireland Assembly elections.

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With 22.0% of first preference votes, it is the first time a nationalist party has topped the poll in any province-wide poll.

But while John Hume's party polled the highest share of the first preference votes, the Ulster Unionist Party's leader David Trimble is still on course to become the new assembly's First Minister.

The UUP scored 21.3% of the first preference votes across the province. But when further preferences are transferred under the complex voting arrangements, the party stands to take the most seats.

'No' camp to fall short of target

Computer predictions carried out by the BBC currently show the UUP finishing with up to 29 seats in the assembly, just ahead of the anti-agreement Democratic Unionist Party.

The DUP and others opposed to the Good Friday Agreement need at least 30 seats to be able to obstruct the assembly.

The SDLP could finish with 24 members after all the second preference votes have been transferred.

Republican party Sinn Fein have also clocked up a personal best, with 17.6% of first preference votes.

The pro-agreement lobby is expected to take 79 seats in total, showing a majority of both unionists and nationalists for the the Good Friday settlement.

[ image: Trimble: Could be embarrassed in his home seat]
Trimble: Could be embarrassed in his home seat
Major players secure seats

Mr Trimble and the SDLP leader John Hume were among the big political names to be elected in the first round of vote counting.

Other major names to have secured seats in the proposed assembly include the DUP's leader Ian Paisley and his son, Ian Paisley Jnr, in North Antrim and Robert McCartney of the UK Unionist Party (Down North).

Sinn Fein's two Westminister MPs, Gerry Adams (Belfast West) and Martin McGuinness (Mid Ulster) have both been elected to the assembly.

John Hume: "Truth and reconcilliation..."
Despite a strong personal victory of more than 12,000 votes, Mr Trimble faces a potentially damaging outcome in his home constituency of Upper Bann.

The three other UUP candidates in Upper Bann only managed to poll around 2,200 votes between them on the first round.

[ image: Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams]
Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams
Dissident Ulster Unionist Denis Watson, opposed to the Good Friday Agreement, polled a healthy 4,855 votes.

He is now competing with SDLP, DUP and Sinn Fein candidates, as well as Mr Trimble's trailing colleagues, for the constituency's remaining seats.

Mr Hume, who is credited as one of the major architects of the peace process, won his seat in the western constituency of Foyle.

And in a surprise result, Alliance member Seamus Close has won through in the strongly pro-unionist constituency of Lagan Valley.

The voting system

[ image: Voters list preferences on the ballot papers]
Voters list preferences on the ballot papers
Estimates put voter turn-out at around 70% - lower than last month's referendum on the Stormont Agreement, but higher than last year's general election.

The count, for six seats in each of 18 constituencies, is being conducted at eight centres across Northern Ireland, and continues into Saturday.

Unlike the "first-past-the-post" system in the rest of the UK, the election has been fought under a proportional representation system called single transferable vote which allows voters to support more than one candidate or party.

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