Sinn Fein hails ‘new era’ by winning vote in Northern Ireland


Election staff begin counting the votes in Belfast during the Northern Ireland Assembly election early Friday in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Friday, May 6, 2022. Voters in Northern Ireland elect a new A 90-seat assembly, with polls suggesting Irish nationalist Sinn Fein could win the most seats and the premiership, which would be a historic first. (AP Photo/Peter Morrison)


Irish nationalist party Sinn Fein, which seeks unification with Ireland, hailed a “new era” for Northern Ireland on Saturday by winning the most seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly for the first time in a historic victory.

With nearly all the votes counted from Thursday’s UK local elections, Sinn Fein secured 27 of the 90 Assembly seats. The Democratic Unionist Party, which dominated the Northern Ireland legislature for two decades, won 24 seats. The win means Sinn Fein is entitled to the premiership in Belfast – a first for an Irish nationalist party since Northern Ireland was founded as a Protestant-majority state in 1921.

The centrist Alliance party, which does not identify as either nationalist or unionist, also saw a huge surge in support and was expected to become the other big winner in the vote, claiming 17 seats.

The victory is a milestone for Sinn Fein, which has long been linked to the Irish Republican Army, a paramilitary group that used bombs and bullets to try to wrest Northern Ireland from British rule for decades of violence involving Irish Republican activists, Protestant loyalists. paramilitaries and the British army and police.

“Today ushers in a new era,” Sinn Fein Vice President Michelle O’Neill said shortly before the final results were announced. “Regardless of religious, political or social background, my commitment is to make politics work.”

O’Neill stressed that it was imperative that the divided politicians of Northern Ireland meet next week to form an executive – the devolved government of Northern Ireland. 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 Sinn Fein’s victory signals a historic shift that shows dwindling support for Unionist parties, it is far from clear what will happen next due to Northern Ireland’s complicated power-sharing politics and wrangling ongoing on 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 the rules have 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, the DUP’s Paul Givan resigned as Prime Minister in protest at the arrangements, sparking a new political crisis in Northern Ireland.

DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson said he would announce next week whether he would return to government.

“We will consider what we need to do now to get the required action from the government. I will make my clear decision on all of this early next week,” he told the BBC.

UK Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis said he would meet all party leaders in the coming days and urge them to get back to government business quickly.

Voters delivered a clear message that “they want a fully functioning devolved government in Northern Ireland, they want protocol issues 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 restore a power-sharing executive, which is one of the key institutions established 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 UK and Ireland, to support peace, prosperity and stability in the region,” Price said in a statement. communicated.

Saturday’s results bring Sinn Fein’s ultimate goal of a united Ireland closer, although the party has kept unification on the sidelines this year in a campaign dominated by soaring living costs.

O’Neill said there would be no constitutional change on Irish unification until voters decide. 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 the shift in power in Northern Ireland was 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 pressuring the EU to agree to major changes in post-Brexit arrangements will pose a headache for British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Curtice added. Johnson’s own Conservative party lost at least 450 seats in local elections on Thursday.

Britain’s Conservative government has said Brexit customs arrangements cannot work without the support of trade unionists in Northern Ireland. Johnson threatened to unilaterally suspend Brexit rules if the EU refused to change them.


Hui reported from London.


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Lynn A. Saleh