BELFAST, March 4 (Xinhua) -- The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) retained its position Saturday as the biggest party in Northern Ireland, but only by the narrowest margin of one seat ahead of pro-republican Sinn Fein.
Now the parties in the region have several weeks to discuss working together to see the return of a devolved assembly.
With all 90 seats allocated, the DUP won 28 seats while Sinn Fein won 27 in what was seen as a major vote of confidence in the party's new leader in Northern Ireland, Michelle O'Neill.
O'Neill went into her first election as leader with a 10-seat gap behind the DUP.
Relatively unknown outside the region, she succeeded after Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness, one of the party's big-name personalities, resigned in a fallout with the DUP.
O'Neill now has just three weeks to discuss forming a power-sharing devolved assembly with Arlene Foster, the re-elected DUP leader.
If they fail to reach an agreement, the government secretary of state for Northern Ireland, James Brokenshire, could order a second election and restore home rule from Westminster.
That would be seen as a backward step for Northern Ireland that saw around 3,600 people killed in shootings and bombings in a campaign spanning 30 years by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) who demanded the region be reunited with the Dublin-based Irish Republic.
"The prospect of a devolved government being formed is very remote," said Jon Tonge, professor at the University of Liverpool and expert on Irish politics.
Under governance arrangements in Northern Ireland, the Stormont assembly has to be run by republicans and nationalists under a formula worked out as part of peace talks that ended decades of troubles.
The resignation of Deputy First Minister McGuinness automatically meant Foster's role as first minister ended, sparking the snap election, the second within 10 months.
The SDLP won 12 seats, the Ulster Unionists (UUP) 10, the Alliance party (APNI) 8, the Green Party 2, and the remaining three went to one independent and two minority parties.
The most unlucky in the election was Mike Nesbitt, leader of the UUP, who announced his resignation following the party's poor showing.
Just under 65 percent of the voters in Northern Ireland cast votes on Thursday, the highest turnout since the vote which followed the 1998 peace agreement. The size of the assembly was trimmed by 18 seats to 90 as a cost-cutting measure.
Belfast's daily newspaper the News Letter commented on Saturday that "Northern Ireland today is waking up to a fundamentally altered political reality: unionism is no longer a majority in the Stormont chamber for the first time since the creation of the Province a century ago."
The report said every major unionist party saw big losses with DUP leader Foster giving no indication she is considering resignation, speaking instead about going into negotiations with Sinn Fein where there is "work to be done."