By Amanda Ferguson
BELFAST, May 27 (Reuters) - Northern Ireland's cross-community Alliance Party was set to win its first ever European Parliament seat in a surge it said furthered the case for a re-run of Britain's Brexit referendum.
Alliance leader Naomi Long stormed into third place after the first count on Monday and her deputy told Reuters it looked "fairly certain" she would win one of the British region's three seats after campaigning for a second vote on the European Union divorce.
The vote also indicated increasing support for candidates not aligned to the traditional Catholic or Protestant voting blocs and was the best national showing for the Alliance Party founded almost 50 years ago, just as Northern Ireland's violent period known as "The Troubles" deepened.
"This is a vote about Brexit ... it's a vote to remain, it's a vote to have a people's vote," Long, close to tears, told reporters at the Belfast count centre.
"People came together behind Alliance to send a message and that message is we want to stay in the EU."
Pro-EU Irish nationalists Sinn Fein topped the poll, just ahead of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which props up the minority British government in London and wants the United Kingdom to complete its exit from the bloc.
Like Scotland, which also returned a majority of candidates seeking a Brexit rerun, Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU in the 2016 referendum but will leave with the rest of the UK after its citizens as a whole opted to leave.
How the 500-km (311-mile) border between Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland is managed after Brexit was one of the major obstacles that stopped Prime Minister Theresa May from ratifying the deal she reached with the EU in parliament.
By almost trebling the Alliance vote to 18 percent compared to the 2014 poll, Long looked set to leave pro-British Unionist parties without a majority of Northern Ireland's European seats for the first time.
Northern Ireland still overwhelmingly votes along traditional lines two decades after a peace deal ended 30 years of sectarian violence, choosing mainly Catholic nationalists who favour a united Ireland or predominantly Protestant unionists who want to remain British.
However, unionists also lost their majority at the last elections to the devolved assembly in 2017 and the Alliance were the biggest gainers at local council elections this month, closing the gap on the main blocs.
With some support slipping from the main Irish nationalist and pro-British parties, the votes of those moving towards cross-community parties like the Alliance and Greens could also prove crucial in any future referendum on reunification with Ireland.
(Writing by Padraic Halpin; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)
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