BELFAST, Northern Ireland
Irish nationalist party Sinn Fein on Saturday praised a “new era” for Northern Ireland as it headed for a historic election victory that would make it the largest party in the legislature for the first time.
With the majority of the Assembly’s 90 seats counted, Sinn Fein, who wants to unite the north with Ireland, is competing with the Democratic Unionist Party, which has dominated Northern Ireland’s legislature for 20 years. So far, both have 23 seats, but Sinn Fein was generally expected to win the most seats.
The centrist Alliance Party, which does not identify as nationalist or unionist, has seen a huge surge in support and will become the other big winner in this year’s local UK elections, which were held on Thursday. It has 17 seats so far.
Sinn Fein stands ready to secure the right to the post of Prime Minister in Belfast, the first since Northern Ireland was formed as a Protestant-majority state in 1921.
It is a milestone for a party long associated with the Irish Republican Army, a paramilitary group that used bombs and bullets to take Northern Ireland out of British rule during decades of violence involving Irish Republican militants, Protestant loyalist paramilitaries and the British Army and Police were involved. †
“Today ushers in a new era,” Sinn Fein Vice President Michelle O’Neill said on Saturday. “Regardless of my religious, political or social background, my commitment is to make politics work.”
O’Neill stressed that it is imperative that Northern Ireland’s politicians come together next week to form an executive, the devolved government of Northern Ireland. If none can be formed within six months, the government will collapse, leading to new elections and more uncertainty.
There is “room in this state for everyone, all of us together,” O’Neill said. “There is an urgency to restore an Executive and put money back in people’s pockets, to restore health service. People can’t wait.”
While a Sinn Fein victory would mark a historic shift pointing to waning support for union parties, it’s far from clear what happens next due to Northern Ireland’s complicated power-sharing politics and ongoing squabbles over post-Brexit settlements.
Under a mandatory power-sharing system created by the 1998 peace agreement that ended decades of Catholic-Protestant conflict, the jobs of prime minister and deputy prime minister have been split between the largest trade union party and the largest nationalist party. . Both posts must be filled for a government to function, but the Democratic Unionist Party has suggested she may not serve under a Sinn Fein prime minister.
The DUP has also said it will refuse to join a new government unless major changes are made to post-Brexit border arrangements, known as the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Those post-Brexit rules, which came into effect after Britain left the European Union, have imposed customs and border controls on some goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK. The settlement was intended to maintain an open border between Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland, a key pillar of the peace process.
But it angered many union members, who claim the new controls have created a barrier between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK that undermines their British identity.
In February, DUP’s Paul Givan resigned as Prime Minister as post-Brexit tensions sparked another political crisis in Northern Ireland.
Saturday’s results bring Sinn Fein’s ultimate goal of a united Ireland one step closer, although Sinn Fein has kept unification out of the spotlight this year amid a campaign dominated by the skyrocketing cost of living.
O’Neill has said there would be no constitutional change on Irish unification until voters make a decision. Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald indicated Friday that planning for a referendum on unity could come within the next five years.
According to opinion poll expert John Curtice, a professor of political science at the University of Strathclyde, Northern Ireland’s latest election results are a legacy of Brexit.
“The union vote has been fragmented due to divisions within the community over whether or not the Northern Ireland Protocol is something that can be satisfactorily changed or should be scrapped,” he wrote on the BBC’s website.
Convincing the DUP to join a new government and trying to pressure the EU into agreeing to major changes to post-Brexit arrangements will pose a challenge to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, he added. ready. Johnson’s own conservative party lost at least 450 seats in Thursday’s local elections.
Full results of the local elections in Northern Ireland, which use a proportional representation system, were expected later Saturday.
This story is from The Associated Press. Mrs. Hui reported from London.