A political party committed to the reunification of Ireland is set to win a historic victory in Northern Irish elections, marking a shift in the UK region which traditionally has been dominated by parties loyal to Britain.
Pro-unification party Sinn Féin claimed 29% of votes cast in elections held Thursday, beating a field of other parties including the pro-British Democratic Unionist Party, which secured 21.3%. The exact number of seats won by each party in the 90-member assembly has yet to be decided under a system of proportional representation in which votes can be transferred from weaker candidates.
The victory for Sinn Féin, which for decades was the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, is a first in Northern Ireland since its creation in 1921 and threatens to upend a delicate power sharing arrangement in the region.
“This is an election of real change,” said Michelle O’Neill, Sinn Féin’s leader in Northern Ireland.
The result doesn’t mean that reunification of the island of Ireland will happen soon but it shows signs of possible momentum in that direction, analysts said.
“What it has done is it has turned it into an open question and a live question,” said Duncan Morrow, a professor of politics at Ulster University.
A referendum must take place for Northern Ireland to rejoin the Republic of Ireland. The referendum can only be triggered by the British government if opinion polls consistently show that the Northern Irish want reunification. Around 37% of Northern Irish people favor reunification, and 49% want to stay part of the UK, according to an analysis of several polls by pollster Lucid Talk. The Republic of Ireland would also need to hold a referendum.
The election was dominated by day-to-day issues such as inflation and a troubled healthcare system, rather than existential questions about geography. One of the big winners was the Alliance Party, which is largely neutral on the question of reunification.
Over recent years, a change of Sinn Féin’s leadership has allowed the party to distance itself from its association with the IRA, and present itself as more concerned with bread-and-butter issues such as housing and health. The party won the largest share of the vote in a 2020 election in the Republic of Ireland.
Meanwhile the staunchly pro-UK DUP’s share of the vote fell sharply from 28% in 2017 as former supporters expressed disappointment with its handling of the UK’s departure from the European Union, a project the DUP backed. British Prime Minister
agreed to place a customs border between Northern Ireland and the UK as part of a wider Brexit deal with the EU.
The DUP says the agreement cuts off Northern Ireland from Britain, undermining the unity of the UK It has called for the so-called Northern Ireland Protocol to be renegotiated. But in Northern Ireland, a majority supports the post-Brexit arrangement, polls show, a finding that has leached support for the DUP.
The most immediate impact of the vote will likely be months of political paralysis. Under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that ended three decades of sectarian violence, the region’s administration must include representatives of both the largely Protestant pro-UK community and their mostly-Catholic Irish nationalist neighbors. The biggest parties form an executive, splitting the leadership between a first and deputy first minister and dividing up government departments.
Relations between the DUP and Sinn Féin are at a low ebb, and analysts say that reaching a deal could be difficult. If a deal isn’t reached in the next eight days, the executive is effectively paused for six months to give space to find compromise. If none is found, the UK government can then call another election. Ultimately the UK government in London could take on direct rule of the province, something it avoided doing in the past.
Also looming is more wrangling over Brexit. The UK quit the EU’s single market, and trade with the EU is now subject to regulatory checks and tariffs. The changes caused a headache for Northern Ireland, which is in the UK and shares a border with the Republic of Ireland, which is in the EU. Amid fears that customs checks along the Irish border would inflame sectarian tensions, the UK and EU agreed to put a customs border in the Irish Sea, between Britain and Northern Ireland.
The DUP pulled out its first minister from the Belfast Assembly in February in protest over the deal, known as the Northern Irish protocol, arguing it undermines the region’s place in the UK.
UK government officials say they want the protocol to be renegotiated so that there are no customs checks on products destined solely for Northern Ireland. They argue that the Northern Irish protocol is being too stringently implemented by the EU and is causing political strife in the region. The EU says that it must protect the integrity of its trade bloc. The two sides are in talks about how the protocol could be altered.
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