With the majority of the 90 Assembly seats counted, Sinn Fein, which seeks to unite the north with Ireland, rivals the Democratic Unionist Party, which has dominated Northern Ireland’s legislature for two decades. So far both have 23 seats, but Sinn Fein were widely expected to win the most seats.
Sinn Fein are set to win the right to the premiership in Belfast for the first time since Northern Ireland was formed as a Protestant-majority state in 1921.
It’s a milestone for a party long linked to the Irish Republican Army, a paramilitary group that has used bombs and bullets to try to wrest Northern Ireland from British rule during decades of violence involving Irish Republican activists, Protestant loyalist paramilitaries and the British army and police. .
“Today ushers in a new era,” Sinn Fein Vice President Michelle O’Neill said on Saturday. “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 come together to form an executive – the devolved government of Northern Ireland – next week. 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 urgent need to restore an executive and put money back in people’s pockets, to start fixing the health service. People can’t 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 or not the Northern Ireland Protocol can be satisfactorily amended or whether it 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.
The full results of Northern Ireland’s local elections, which use a proportional representation system, were due later on Saturday.
Hui reported from London.
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