The centrist Alliance Party, which does not identify as nationalist or unionist, also saw a huge surge in support and would become the other big winner on the ballot, taking 17 seats.
The victory is a major milestone for Sinn Fein, who has long been 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, Protestants loyalists were involved. paramilitaries and the British army and police.
“Today ushers in a new era,” said Sinn Fein Vice President Michelle O’Neill shortly before the final results were announced. “Regardless of my religious, political or social background, my commitment is to make politics work.”
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 Sinn Fein’s victory signals 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 the rules 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 in protest at the agreements, sparking another political crisis in Northern Ireland.
DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson said he will announce next week whether he will return to government.
“We will see what we need to do now to get the necessary measures from the government. I will make my decision on that early next week,” he told the BBC.
UK Minister for Northern Ireland Brandon Lewis said he will meet with all party leaders in the coming days and urge them to get back to work with government quickly.
Voters have sent a clear message that “they want a fully functioning devolved government in Northern Ireland, they want the issues surrounding the protocol addressed and they want politics to work better,” Lewis said.
US State Department spokesman Ned Price said: “We call on Northern Ireland’s political leaders to take the necessary steps to re-establish a power-sharing executive branch, one of the key institutions created by the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.”
“We look forward to continuing our work with democratic partners in Northern Ireland and with the governments of the United Kingdom and Ireland to support peace, prosperity and stability across the region,” Price said in a statement.
Saturday’s results bring Sinn Fein’s ultimate goal of a united Ireland one step closer, although the party kept unification out of the spotlight this year amid a campaign dominated by the skyrocketing cost of living.
O’Neill has said there will be no constitutional change for 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, professor of political science at the University of Strathclyde, the power shift in Northern Ireland is 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 urging the EU to agree to major changes to post-Brexit arrangements will give British Prime Minister Boris Johnson a headache, Curticus added. Johnson’s own conservative party lost at least 450 seats in Thursday’s local elections.
The British Conservative government says Brexit customs arrangements cannot work without union support in Northern Ireland. Johnson has threatened to unilaterally suspend Brexit rules if the EU refuses to change them.
Hui reported from London.
Follow all AP stories on post-Brexit developments at https://apnews.com/hub/Brexit.