Northern Ireland: Sinn Fein secures historic election win | News | DW | 07.05.2022

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Northern Ireland: Sinn Fein secures historic election win

The Irish nationalist party Sinn Fein vowed a "new era" as it won the most seats in the Assembly for the first time — a victory that could bring the party's ultimate goal of a united Ireland a step closer.

Michelle O'Neill (center) applauds with party colleagues

Sinn Fein's vice president and lead candidate, Michelle O'Neill (C), could become first minister

Sinn Fein, the Irish nationalist party that aspires to remove Northern Ireland from British rule to create a united Ireland, has on won the largest number of seats in the Belfast legislature, official results showed on Saturday. 

With almost all the votes counted, Sinn Fein secured 27 seats, while the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the largest in the Northern Ireland Assembly for two decades, has 24. Only two seats were left to declare.

Pro-British unionist parties, mainly supported by the region's Protestant population, have been preeminent in Northern Ireland for a century. 

A 'new era'

Sinn Fein vice president Michelle O'Neill said earlier on Saturday that Northern Ireland was entering a "new era" as her party was looking set to win. 

"It's a defining moment for our politics and our people," she said. "I will provide leadership which is inclusive, which celebrates diversity, which guarantees rights and equality for those who have been excluded, discriminated against or ignored in the past," she added. 

The largest group in the legislature has the right to provide the first minister in Belfast. O'Neill is likely to take the position. 

A first minister advocating a united Ireland would represent a radical change in the province's politics. 

As the former political wing of the paramilitary Irish Republican Army (IRA), Sinn Fein is committed to a referendum on reunification with the Republic of Ireland to the south.

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A referendum that could see Northern Ireland become part of the neighboring Republic of Ireland and leave the UK is ultimately at the discretion of the British government and likely to be years away. The Good Friday peace accord does, however, stipulate that if it ever appears "likely" that "a majority of those voting" would support reunification, the UK should enable such a poll.

O'Neill had downplayed the party's calls for Irish unity during the election campaign. She said the economically left-leaning party was "not fixated" on a date for a sovereignty poll, instead being focused on helping people deal with a cost-of-living crisis.

But, on Saturday, O'Neil said a "healthy conversation is already underway" about Irish reunification. "Let's have a healthy debate about what our future looks like," she added.

Unionist party leader concedes

Before the vote count ended, DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson conceded on Saturday that his rivals in Sinn Fein were set for election victory.

"Certainly it looks at the moment as if Sinn Fein will emerge as the largest party," he told broadcaster Sky News, while reiterating that the DUP would refuse to join a new government without changes to a post-Brexit trading deal between the UK and EU.

That arrangement — effectively creating a barrier within the United Kingdom — makes many unionists uncomfortable.

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What happens next?

The party in second place would be able to choose the deputy first minister — a position that holds the same effective governmental power in Northern Ireland's unique power-sharing arrangement. 

The new legislators in Northern Ireland will meet next week to try to form an executive. If they do not succeed within six months, the administration will collapse.

That would mean a new election and continued uncertainty.

US State Department spokesman Ned Price has called on Northern Ireland's political leaders to take the necessary steps to re-establish a power-sharing executive. It is one of the core institutions created by the 1988 Good Friday Agreement which ended a political conflict in Northern Ireland.

The Northern Ireland vote took place at the same time as regional elections in other parts of the UK, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson's Conservative party losing control of key councils in London.

tj,rc/fb (AP, AFP, Reuters, dpa)

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