Northern Ireland on Saturday resumed counting ballots from an election that has put the nationalist Sinn Fein party on course for a historic victory.
As the count restarted from Thursday's complex proportional voting, the former political wing of the IRA paramilitary group had secured 18 seats for the 90-seat legislature.
The party, which wants a referendum on reunifying Ireland a century after Northern Ireland was created as a Protestant statelet, is targeting 28 seats to claim the role of first minister for leader Michelle O'Neill.
After winning her own seat Friday, O'Neill called it "the election of a generation" and "time for real change".
But Sinn Fein has been downplaying prospects for an imminent referendum on ending UK sovereignty over Northern Ireland, saying it could see one being held in the next five years.
The pro-UK Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) occupied the role of first minister in the outgoing Stormont assembly, before it collapsed the executive in protest at post-Brexit trading rules between the UK and EU.
DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson said the government in London should rip up the so-called Northern Ireland Protocol, which unionists argue threatens their place in the wider UK.
"The government need to act decisively on the protocol and until they do, I won't be nominating ministers to the executive," he told the BBC late Friday, after the DUP's vote share slid.
Without DUP endorsement of a new executive, Northern Ireland's government cannot function, and the parties would have 24 weeks to resolve their differences or face a new election.
The other big winner was the cross-community Alliance party, which said its strong showing in third place underlined the need for Northern Ireland to move past old divisions.
"We are serious about making Stormont work. We are not interested in playing games," Alliance leader Naomi Long said, stressing voters cared most about a cost-of-living crisis affecting the UK.