EXPLANATION: What comes next for N. Ireland after Sinn Fein wins?

LONDON (AP) – Sinn Fein’s election as the largest party in the Northern Ireland Assembly is a historic moment — the first time an Irish nationalist party, rather than a British unionist one, has topped the vote.

With all but two of the assembly seats occupied on Saturday, Sinn Fein won with 27 of the 90 seats. The Democratic Unionist Party, which was the largest for 20 years, has 24 seats and the Alliance Party, which describes itself as neither nationalist nor unionist, has 17.


The result is very symbolic. A party seeking to unite Northern Ireland with the neighboring Republic of Ireland is mandated to take the reins in a state founded a century ago as a Protestant-majority region of the United Kingdom.

It is an important milestone for a party longstanding ties to the Irish Republican Army, a paramilitary group that, during decades of turmoil, tried to take Northern Ireland out of British rule using bombs, bullets and violence. More than 3,500 people have died in 30 years of violence involving Irish republican militants, Protestant loyalist paramilitaries and the British army and police.

A 1998 peace deal ended widespread violence and Northern Ireland now has a government that splits power between British trade unionists and Irish nationalists. The arrangement has often been unstable, but has held up.


The result gives Sinn Fein the right to hold the post of Prime Minister in Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government, with the DUP taking on the role of Deputy Prime Minister.

But it is unlikely that a government will be established any time soon.

Under Northern Ireland’s delicate power-sharing system, the posts of Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister have equal status, and both posts must be filled before a government can be formed.

While Sinn Fein is poised to nominate its Northern Ireland leader Michelle O’Neill as prime minister, the DUP says it will not follow suit unless major changes are made to post-Brexit border arrangements that it believes will replace Northern Ireland. -Undermining Ireland in the UK

WHAT’S BREXIT got to do with it?

Britain’s 2016 decision to leave the European Union and its borderless free trade zone has complicated Northern Ireland’s position. It is the only part of the UK that has a border with an EU country. Keeping that border open for the free movement of people and goods is an important pillar of the peace process.

So instead, the post-Brexit rules have imposed customs and border controls on some goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK – a border in the Irish Sea, rather than the island of Ireland.

Unionists say the new controls have created a barrier between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK that undermines their British identity. The largest trade union party, the DUP, is demanding that the arrangements known as the Northern Ireland Protocol be scrapped.

Britain’s Conservative government says the schemes cannot work without the support of unions, and is urging the EU to agree to major changes. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has threatened to unilaterally suspend the rules if the bloc refuses.

But negotiations between the UK and the EU have reached an impasse, with the bloc accusing Johnson of refusing to implement the rules he agreed to in a legally binding treaty.


The Northern Ireland Assembly must meet within eight days for the newly elected legislators to take their place. Members of the Assembly then elect a speaker, followed by the appointment of ministers, starting with the first and deputy prime ministers.

If, as seems likely, an executive branch cannot be formed because the DUP refuses, the ministers of the previous government will remain in power and basic administration can continue, although ministers will be banned from making important or controversial decisions.

If there is still no director after 24 weeks, a new election must be held.


Irish unity did not play a major role in this year’s election campaign in Northern Ireland, which was dominated by more immediate concerns, most notably a cost of living crisis caused by the skyrocketing cost of food and fuel.

But it remains Sinn Fein’s goal, and party leader Mary Lou McDonald says a referendum in Northern Ireland could be held within a “five-year window”.

The Good Friday Peace Agreement of 1998 stated that Irish reunification could take place if referendums support it in both Northern Ireland and the Republic.

In Northern Ireland, such a vote would have to be called by the British Government, “if at any time it seems likely to him that a majority of those voting would express the wish that Northern Ireland should no longer be part of the United Kingdom and be part of a united Ireland.”

There are no hard and fast rules for determining when that threshold is met.

Complicating the picture is the fact that Northern Ireland’s identity is in flux, with a growing number of people – especially young people – identifying as neither unionist nor nationalist. This is reflected in the strong performance of the centrist Alliance Party. There is a growing call for changes to power-sharing rules to reflect the transition beyond the traditional religious and political divide in Northern Ireland.


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