BELFAST, Northern Ireland (AP) — Irish nationalist Sinn Fein was poised to become Northern Ireland’s largest Assembly group for the first time, giving it the right to the premiership in Belfast , according to the results of Saturday’s vote count of this week’s local election.
A victory for Sinn Fein would be historic as Unionist parties have ruled the legislature since Northern Ireland was formed as a Protestant-majority state in 1921.
An election victory would bring the party’s ultimate goal of a united Ireland closer. It’s a milestone for a party long linked to the Irish Republican Army, a paramilitary group that has used bombs and bullets to try to wrest Northern Ireland from British rule during decades of violence involving Irish Republican activists, Protestant loyalist paramilitaries and the British army and police. .
But Sinn Fein has kept unification on the sidelines this year during a campaign that has been dominated by soaring living costs. Party leaders have indicated there will be no immediate steps for a United Ireland referendum, and no constitutional changes will take place until voters decide.
With more than two-thirds of the 90 seats counted so far, Saturday’s results showed Sinn Fein have 23 seats, while the Democratic Unionist Party, which is the largest party in the Northern Ireland Assembly for two decades, is 21.
The centrist Alliance party, which does not identify as either nationalist or unionist, has seen its support surge and is set to be the other big winner in this year’s UK local elections. It currently has 15 seats.
While a Sinn Fein win would be a historic shift that shows waning support for Unionist parties, what will happen next is far from clear.
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.
Post-Brexit rules, which came into effect after Britain left the European Union, imposed customs and border checks 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 it has 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 as post-Brexit tensions sparked a new political crisis in Northern Ireland.
Polling expert John Curtice, professor of political science at the University of Strathclyde, said Thursday’s local election results in Northern Ireland are 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 trying to pressure the EU to agree to major changes in post-Brexit arrangements will pose a headache for British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, he added. Johnson’s own Conservative party lost at least 450 seats in the municipal elections this week.
Sinn Fein deputy chair Michelle O’Neill said it was imperative that political leaders come together to form an executive – the devolved government of Northern Ireland – next week.
There is “room in this state for everyone, all of us together,” she said on Saturday. “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.
O’Neill said that regarding Irish unification there would be no constitutional change until the voters decided. Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald indicated on Friday that planning for any unity referendum could come within the next five years.
The full results of Thursday’s local elections, which use a proportional representation system, were expected later in the weekend.
Northern Ireland’s new lawmakers will meet next week to try to form an executive body. If none can be formed within six months, the administration will collapse, triggering a new election and more uncertainty.
Hui reported from London.
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