Northern Ireland: Sinn Fein poised for historic election win

The Irish nationalist Sinn Fein party vowed a “new era” as it seemed set to win most seats in the legislature for the first time — a victory that would bring the party’s ultimate goal of a united Ireland a step closer.

Michelle O'Neill (center) applauds with party colleaguesSinn Fein’s vice president and lead candidate, Michelle O’Neill (C), could become first minister

Sinn Fein, the Irish nationalist party that aspires to remove Northern Ireland from British rule to create a united Ireland, was widely expected on Saturday to become the largest group in the Belfast legislature.

With more than two-thirds of 90 seats counted from Thursday’s election, Saturday’s results showed Sinn Fein with 21 seats, while the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the largest in the Northern Ireland Assembly for two decades, was on 19.

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The centrist Alliance Party, which neither identifies as nationalist or unionist, has won 14 seats so far.

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Sinn Fein vows ‘new era’

Sinn Fein vice president Michelle O’Neill on Saturday said Northern Ireland was entering a “new era” as victory loomed for her party.

“It’s a defining moment for our politics and our people,” she said, vowing, “I will provide leadership which is inclusive, which celebrates diversity, which guarantees rights and equality for those who have been excluded, discriminated against or ignored in the past.”

If Sinn Fein does become the largest group in the legislature, it will have the right to provide the first minister in Belfast. O’Neill is likely to take the position.

The election of a first minister advocating a united Ireland would represent a radical change in the province’s politics.

As the former political wing of the paramilitary Irish Republican Army (IRA), Sinn Fein is committed to a referendum on reunification with the Republic of Ireland to the south.

However, a referendum that could see Northern Ireland become part of the neighboring Republic of Ireland and leave the UK is ultimately at the discretion of the British government and likely to be years away. The Good Friday peace accord does, however, stipulate that if it ever appears “likely” that “a majority of those voting” would support reunification, the UK should enable such a poll.

O’Neill had downplayed the party’s calls for Irish unity during the election campaign. She said the economically left-leaning party was “not fixated” on a date for a sovereignty poll, instead being focused on helping people deal with a cost-of-living crisis.

But on Saturday, O’Neil said a “healthy conversation is already underway” about Irish reunification. “Let’s have a healthy debate about what our future looks like.”

Unionist party leader concedes

Northern Ireland’s unionist DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson conceded on Saturday that his rivals in Sinn Fein were set for election victory.

“Certainly it looks at the moment as if Sinn Fein will emerge as the largest party,” he told broadcaster Sky News, while reiterating that the DUP would refuse to join a new government without changes to a post-Brexit trading deal between the UK and EU.

That arrangement — effectively creating a barrier within the United Kingdom — makes many unionists uncomfortable.

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What happens next?

The party in second place would be able to choose the deputy first minister — a position that holds the same effective governmental power in Northern Ireland’s unique power-sharing arrangement.

A second-place finish for the centrist Alliance Party would be a huge shift in Northern Irish politics, nudging the DUP into third place as the largest unionist party.

Pro-British unionist parties, mainly supported by the region’s Protestant population, have been pre-eminent in Northern Ireland for a century.

Should the non-aligned Alliance emerge second, the power-sharing rules of the Northern Ireland Executive mean it would have to denominate — at least temporarily — as unionist to nominate a deputy first minister. The party, which is trying not to define itself by what for decades was the core dividing line in Northern Irish politics, has indicated in the past that it would not do this.

Parliament Buildings in BelfastThe Northern Ireland Assembly meets in Parliament Buildings, often called Stormont, in Belfast

The new legislators in Northern Ireland will meet next week to try to form an executive. If they do not succeed within six months, the administration will collapse.

That would mean a new election and continued uncertainty.

The Northern Ireland vote took place at the same time as local elections in other parts of the UK, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative party losing control of key councils in London.

tj,rc/fb (AP, AFP, Reuters, dpa)