BELFAST, Northern Ireland – Irish nationalist party Sinn Fein, which seeks to unify with Ireland, hailed a “new era” for Northern Ireland on Saturday by winning the most seats in the Assembly of Northern Ireland for the first time in a historic victory.
With nearly all the votes counted from Thursday’s UK local elections, Sinn Fein secured 27 of the 90 Assembly seats. The Democratic Unionist Party, which dominated the Northern Ireland legislature for two decades, won 24 seats. The victory means Sinn Fein is entitled to the premiership in Belfast for the first time since the founding of Northern Ireland as a Protestant-majority state in 1921.
The centrist Alliance party, which does not identify as either nationalist or unionist, saw a huge surge in support and was poised to become the other big winner in the vote, claiming 17 seats.
The victory is a milestone for Sinn Fein, which has long been linked to the Irish Republican Army, a paramilitary group that used bombs and bullets to try to wrest Northern Ireland from British rule for decades of violence involving Irish Republican activists and Protestant loyalist paramilitaries. and the British army and police.
“Today ushers in a new era,” Sinn Fein Vice President Michelle O’Neill said shortly before the final results were announced. “Regardless of religious, political or social background, my commitment is to make politics work.”
O’Neill stressed that it was imperative that politicians in Northern Ireland meet next week to form an executive – the devolved government of Northern Ireland. If none can be formed within six months, the administration will collapse, triggering a new election and more uncertainty.
There’s “room in this state for everyone, all of us together,” O’Neill said. “There is an urgency to restore an executive and to put money back in people’s pockets, to start fixing the health service. People cannot wait.”
While a Sinn Fein win would signal a historic shift that shows declining support for Unionist parties, it is far from clear what will happen next due to Northern Ireland’s complicated power-sharing politics and the ongoing wrangling over post-Brexit arrangements.
Under a mandatory power-sharing system created by the 1998 peace accord that ended decades of Catholic-Protestant conflict, the posts of prime minister and deputy prime minister are distributed among the most largest unionist party and largest nationalist party. Both posts must be filled for a government to work, but the Democratic Unionist Party has suggested it may not serve under a Sinn Fein premier.
The DUP has also said it will refuse to join a new government unless there are major changes to the post-Brexit border arrangements, known as the Northern Ireland Protocol.
These post-Brexit rules, which came into effect after Britain left the European Union, imposed customs and border controls on certain goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK. The arrangement was designed to maintain an open border between Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland. , an essential pillar of the peace process.
But it has angered many trade unionists, who argue the new controls have created a barrier between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK that undermines their British identity. In February, Paul Givan of the DUP resigned as Prime Minister as post-Brexit tensions sparked a new political crisis in Northern Ireland.
Saturday’s results bring Sinn Fein’s ultimate goal of a united Ireland closer, although Sinn Fein have kept unification on the sidelines this year during a campaign dominated by soaring living costs.
O’Neill said that upon Irish unification there would be no constitutional change until the voters decided. Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald indicated on Friday that planning for any unity referendum could come within the next five years.
Polling expert John Curtice, professor of political science at the University of Strathclyde, said Northern Ireland’s latest election results are a legacy of Brexit.
“The Unionist vote has fragmented due to divisions within the community over whether the Northern Ireland protocol is something that can be satisfactorily changed or should be scrapped,” he said. he writes on the BBC website.
Persuading the DUP to join a new government and trying to pressure the EU to agree to major changes in post-Brexit arrangements will pose a headache for British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, he added. Johnson’s own Conservative party lost at least 450 seats in local elections on Thursday.