In Northern Ireland, the DUP faced defeat – and the prospect of a Sinn Fein First Minister – after more than 20 years as the country’s biggest party.
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, the DUP leader, had called on those wanting to stay part of the UK to rally behind his party to prevent a border poll – which must be called by both London and Dublin – and oppose the post-Brexit Northern Ireland Protocol.
But the first results showed the DUP was bleeding support to hardline and more moderate unionists, as well as the centrist cross-community Alliance Party, and faced the loss of its majority.
Sir Jeffrey said unionism “simply cannot afford the divisions that exist” because it harmed its “ability to win elections”, as Sir John Curtice, the polling expert, predicted a Sinn Fein win.
Michelle O’Neill, the leader of Sinn Fein, said: “We did say this was going to be an election about the future. It is potentially going to be a historic election for many reasons.”
She is planning for reunification but played down any prospect of an immediate border poll in a campaign focused on healthcare and the cost of living.
Mr Dowden vowed to fight to keep the Union together if a border poll was triggered by a “sustained majority of nationalist opinion in favor of a United Ireland”.
He told Sky News he was “confident” the Government could “make the case” against the break-up of the UK in a referendum, which some commentators still argue is unlikely in the near future.
Mr Johnson, speaking on Friday before the result was known, hinted that he might take a tougher line with Brussels on renegotiating post-Brexit border checks for goods moving into and out of Northern Ireland.
The Prime Minister said: “The most important thing is that we continue to support the balance of the Good Friday Agreement across all communities in Northern Ireland. That’s what we’re going to do.
“And whatever arrangements we have, they’ve got to have cross-community support. That’s what the Good Friday Agreement is all about.”
Edwin Poots, the former DUP leader, said Mr Johnson must put the removal of the protocol in the Queen’s Speech next week or the Good Friday Agreement would be “dead in the water”. Downing Street indicated this week it would not publicly commit to such a move.
Naomi Long, the leader of the Alliance Party – which has emerged to become the third-largest party after winning support from voters tired of old sectarian divides – said it had been a “good day”.
Alliance will not be able to form an Executive with Sinn Fein because Stormont’s rules dictate that power-sharing must be between the largest nationalist and unionist parties. Alliance is designed as “neither” and can only enter the Executive with Sinn Fein and the DUP.
The DUP has said it will not enter power-sharing without an agreement that the Northern Ireland Protocol, which created the Irish Sea border, be removed or replaced.
It collapsed Stormont in February in protest over the Brexit treaty, and Northern Ireland faces potentially months of deadlock talks between the two parties.
Northern Ireland’s electoral office said that 873,787 total votes were polled in the Stormont elections and that turnout was 63.61 per cent – higher than expected.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.