Belfast, United Kingdom – With seats still to be filled, Northern Ireland already appears to be on the verge of a ‘seismic’ electoral outcome after Thursday’s legislative vote.
Sinn Féin, a party that supports the reunification of Ireland and was once the political wing of the IRA, is set to become the largest party in the legislature.
Winning the most seats will give Sinn Féin the post of Prime Minister, making it the first time in Northern Ireland’s 101-year history that the post has not been held by a trade unionist, who supports keeping from the United Kingdom.
The party not only managed to consolidate its vote, but also increase it significantly, winning the largest share of the vote with 250,388 first preferences, against 184,002 for closest rivals, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP ).
Middle parties such as the Ulster Unionists, SDLP and Green Party were also squeezed, with prominent figures losing their seats.
Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald, MP for the Republic of Ireland and on track to be the largest party there by 2025, described the result as “an election of a generation”.
“It’s seismic in terms of what it represents,” Jon Tonge, a politics professor at the University of Liverpool and an expert on the region, told Al Jazeera.
“If Sinn Féin becomes the biggest party, that in itself is extraordinary given the history of the state.”
Any referendum on a united Ireland, a long-standing goal of Sinn Féin and a key objective of the DUP in this election, can only be called by the UK Secretary of State and at least years away.
However, the election results are “another step further on this road”, Tonge said.
This is particularly the case if within a few years Sinn Féin is the largest party in both jurisdictions on the island of Ireland.
Speaking at a counting center in Belfast on the prospects for a united Ireland, Sinn Féin leader McDonald told Sky News that ‘the preparation for this big change needs to happen now.
“We want this to happen in an orderly, planned, democratic and peaceful way,” she added, saying a referendum would “definitely” take place within this decade.
The centrist Alliance party also received a boost in support, becoming the third party in terms of vote share and may have doubled its seats.
Alliance does not define itself as Irish nationalist or unionist and does not take a position on the question of Irish unity.
The rise of this party to such prominence is a significant change in the political landscape of Northern Ireland.
Alliance’s David Honeyford took a new seat for his party in the Lagan Valley constituency.
He told Al Jazeera voters in Northern Ireland are leaning towards those “who prioritize the issues over the constitutional issue”.
“We prioritize health and education, we work very hard on the ground for issues that people care about. And you see the results of that,” Honeyford said.
He acknowledged that many of their votes came from Unionist, Nationalist and other parties.
“The center is solidifying around Alliance, but we also took DUP and Sinn Féin,” he said. “So we are attracting votes from the whole community.”
Jacqueline, an Alliance voter in her 30s in the Upper Bann constituency, was “delighted” with the result. She said her mother, who was in her 60s and would previously have backed a union candidate, also backed Alliance in this election.
“It just shows that opinions have evolved here,” she told Al Jazeera.
The count continues
The Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and the Irish nationalist SDLP both lost significant votes.
After a day of counting, UUP Leader Doug Beatie and SDLP Deputy Leader Nicola Mallon were still battling for their seats Saturday morning.
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood told the media on Friday that the DUP’s focus on the possibility of an Irish nationalist prime minister has backfired and may have led people who normally support his party to “lend” a vote to Sinn Féin in order to “kick out the DUP”.
The small but influential Greens party – which passed legislation on climate change and women’s rights – had hoped to boost its vote. Instead, they lost both seats, including that of their party leader.
Meanwhile, hardline trade unionist TUV polled well and looked likely to take a second seat.
Whether the Alliance push is an increase in the vote for the center or simply a realignment of votes from other middle parties, the Alliance victory will challenge the way government is organized in Northern Ireland.
The current power-sharing arrangement put in place after the end of the Troubles has so far been dominated by the two blocs of nationalism and trade unionism.
Deirdre Heenan, professor of social policy at the University of Ulster, said this model was “based on the idea that there are two ethno-national blocs, trade unionists and nationalists, and that they are fixed and autonomous”.
Although these arrangements may have represented Northern Irish society when the Good Friday Agreement was negotiated 25 years ago, Heenan told Al Jazeera: “The first question we really have to ask ourselves is: is still true today?
“Rising from the middle means we are in a different position. We don’t have two large blocks of divided communities. We have three minority communities, trade unionists, nationalists and others.
Once the final results are known, the parties will begin a negotiation process with a view to forming a new power-sharing executive between the parties.
Above that prospect, the DUP has said it will not enter a new government until the issues surrounding the Northern Ireland Protocol are resolved.
The protocol, a post-Brexit deal that creates a trade border in the Irish Sea to avoid a land border on the island of Ireland, is fiercely opposed by all Unionist parties and is an important issue for many Unionist voters.
While the real economic effect of the protocol on Northern Ireland is disputed, it is seen by many as weakening the link with the rest of the UK and its place in the union is under threat.
The DUP left the government in February over this issue.
Any resolution will likely take months to resolve. In the meantime, an interim government with the ministers currently in place will be able to make certain decisions, but not on important issues such as budgets.
DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson has remained vague on whether Northern Ireland will have devolved government in 2022, telling media at the counting center in Belfast on Saturday: “Let’s cross all the bridges when we get there. “
This situation poses a serious challenge to power-sharing in Northern Ireland, Professor Tonge told Al Jazeera.
“The DUP is not going to back down. They pulled out in February so why would they come back in May when they can’t even appoint a prime minister and there’s no movement on protocol ?” he said.
“This is the biggest crisis for the Good Friday Agreement and political institutions since those early post-conflict years.”