BELFAST, Northern Ireland (AP) — Irish nationalist party Sinn Fein, which seeks unification with Ireland, ushered in a “new era” for Northern Ireland on Saturday by capturing the most seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly by 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 has dominated the Northern Ireland legislature for two decades, won 24 seats. The victory means Sinn Fein is entitled to the premiership in Belfast, the first for an Irish nationalist party since Northern Ireland was founded as a majority Protestant state in 1921.
The centrist Alianza Party, which identifies as neither nationalist nor unionist, also saw a big surge in support and was poised to become the other big winner in the vote, with 17 seats.
The victory is a major 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 remove Northern Ireland from UK rule during decades of violence involving Irish Republican militants. paramilitaries and the UK Army and Police.
“Today marks the beginning of a new era,” Sinn Fein Vice President Michelle O’Neill said shortly before the final results were announced. “Regardless of my religious, political or social background, my commitment is to make politics work.”
O’Neill stressed that it was imperative that Northern Ireland’s divided politicians come together next week to form an Executive – Northern Ireland’s devolved government. If none can be formed within six months, the administration will collapse, leading to a new election 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 start putting money 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 declining support for unionist parties, it is far from clear what will happen next due to Northern Ireland’s complicated power-sharing politics and ongoing disputes over agreements. post-Brexit.
Under a compulsory power-sharing system created by the 1998 peace deal that ended decades of Catholic-Protestant conflict, the posts of prime minister and deputy prime minister are divided between the largest unionist party and the largest nationalist party. Both posts must be filled for a government to function, but the Democratic Unionist Party has suggested that he might not serve under a Sinn Fein prime minister.
The DUP has also said it will refuse to join a new government unless there are major changes 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, imposed customs and border controls on some products entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the United Kingdom. The deal was designed to keep an open border between Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland. , a key pillar of the peace process.
But the rules have angered many unionists, who say the new controls have created a barrier between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK that undermines its British identity. In February, Paul Givan of the DUP resigned as Prime Minister in protest at the arrangements, triggering a new political crisis in Northern Ireland.
DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson has said he will announce next week whether he will return to government.
“We will consider what we must do now to get the action that is required from the government. I will make my decision on all of that clear early next week,” he told the BBC.
UK Secretary for Northern Ireland Brandon Lewis said he will meet with all party leaders in the coming days and urge them to quickly get back to government business.
Voters have sent a clear message that “they want a fully functioning devolved government in Northern Ireland, they want the issues around 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 shared executive power, which is one of the central institutions established for the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement”.
“We look forward to continuing our work with democratic partners in Northern Ireland and with the UK and Irish governments 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 a step closer, though the party kept unification out of the spotlight this year during a campaign dominated by skyrocketing costs of living.
O’Neill has said that there will be no constitutional changes on the unification of Ireland until the voters decide on it. Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald said on Friday that planning for any unity referendum could take place within the next five years.
Polling expert John Curtice, a professor of political science at the University of Strathclyde, said the change in power in Northern Ireland is a legacy of Brexit.
“The Unionist vote has become fragmented due to divisions within the community over whether the Northern Ireland Protocol is something that can be successfully amended or should be scrapped,” he wrote on the BBC website.
Persuading the DUP to join a new government and pressuring the EU to accept major changes to post-Brexit deals will present British Prime Minister Boris Johnson with a headache, Curtice added. Johnson’s own Conservative Party lost at least 450 seats in Thursday’s local elections.
Britain’s Conservative government says Brexit customs arrangements cannot work without support from unionists in Northern Ireland. Johnson has threatened to unilaterally suspend the Brexit rules if the EU refuses to change them.
Hui reported from London.
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