Irish nationalist party Sinn Fein has become the leading party in the Northern Ireland Assembly for the first time in history, according to a BBC tally of election results, raising major questions about the U.K. territory’s future given Sinn Fein’s stated goal of uniting all of Ireland under a single state.
Sinn Fein clinched its position as the largest party on Saturday, holding a three-seat lead over the pro-U.K. Democratic Unionist Party with results in just two of 90 Assembly races not yet called.
This will be the first time a non-U.K. unionist party will be tasked with forming a Northern Irish government since the partition of Ireland in 1921.
Under a 1998 agreement that ended decades of armed conflict between pro-U.K. union Protestants and Irish nationalist Catholics, the positions of first minister and deputy first minister in Northern Ireland are split between the largest U.K. unionist party and Irish nationalist party.
The Democratic Unionist Party has indicated it might boycott filling the deputy first minister position under a Sinn Fein government.
The Alliance Party, which seeks to cross the traditional Catholic-Protestant divisions and focus on quality of life issues, came in third in the elections.
What To Watch For
The end goal of Sinn Fein is a united Ireland, but the issue appeared far from front of mind during the campaign, which focused on more immediate issues like inflation. Post-Brexit policies requiring customs checks on goods delivered from the rest of the U.K. were also hot-button issues, which are especially unpopular with U.K. unionists. Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald said Friday it may take five years for a referendum to go to voters on Irish unification, but any vote would have to first be authorized by the British government.
“Today ushers in a new era,” Sinn Fein vice president Michelle O’Neill said Saturday, as quoted by the Associated Press. “Irrespective of religious, political or social backgrounds, my commitment is to make politics work.”
Sinn Fein’s win is widely considered a massive milestone for Irish nationalists who’ve battled politically and militarily with the U.K. for full control of Ireland for more than a century. The party has strong historic links to the Irish Republican Army, which fought against the British in the Irish War of Independence from 1919 to 1921 before carrying out guerrilla attacks targeting British military and civilian installations during a period known as “the Troubles.” The violence largely ended with the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, which in part mandated shared power in the Northern Irish Assembly.
Sinn Fein hails ‘new era’ as it wins Northern Ireland vote (Associated Press)