BELFAST (Reuters) - Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) said they would be willing to negotiate with Prime Minister Theresa May to help her form a government as it saw its vote surge at elections to Britain's parliament.
May's Conservatives will fail to win a majority, according to an exit poll, meaning the like-minded DUP, set to gain two seats to win 10 of Northern Ireland's total of 18, could potentially play a key role in a future government.
The influence which Britain's smallest province may have after the election was reinforced by the Irish nationalist Sinn Fein party's pledge to maintain its policy of not taking its seats, a position that will cut the numbers needed to win a majority.
Sinn Fein was on course to win as many as 7 of the remaining seats, up from 4 in 2015. That would mean the winning party would need 323 seats for a majority, rather than 326. The exit poll suggested May's Conservatives would win 314 seats.
"This is perfect territory for the DUP obviously because if the Conservatives are just short of an overall majority, it puts us in a very, very strong negotiating position and it is one we would take up with relish," DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson told BBC television.
"We will be serious players if there is a hung parliament. We will talk to whoever is the largest party, it looks like the Conservatives. We have a lot in common, we want to see Brexit work, we want to see the Union strengthened. I think there is a lot of common ground."
Donaldson suggested that the DUP could support a Conservative government on a vote by vote basis. The party's leader, Arlene Foster, said they would have to have very serious discussions if the exit poll was borne out.
Political leaders in Northern Ireland had cast the election as a referendum on whether voters want to be part of the United Kingdom or neighbouring Ireland after Brexit and a nationalist surge at regional elections in March raised the stakes in the long and divisive dispute over the province's status.
The outcome allowed for interpretations either way and with Sinn Fein and the DUP deadlocked in talks to restore the province's devolved assembly, others suggested the latest election would only serve to complicate those negotiations.
"It's very difficult to see how two parties emboldened by the results this evening will be any more conciliatory when it comes to re-establishing the devolved institutions," Naomi Long, leader of the non-sectarian Alliance Party, who like all smaller parties failed to win a seat, told the BBC.
Writing by Padraic Halpin; editing by Kate Holton