Miami Herald (Sunday)

Sinn Fein hails ‘new era’ as it wins Northern Ireland vote



The Irish nationalis­t party Sinn Fein, which seeks unificatio­n with Ireland, hailed a “new era” Saturday for Northern Ireland as it captured the largest number of seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly for the first time in a historic win.

With almost all votes counted from Thursday’s local U.K. election, Sinn Fein secured 27 of the Assembly’s 90 seats. The Democratic Unionist Party, which has dominated Northern Ireland’s legislatur­e for two decades, captured 24 seats. The victory means Sinn Fein is entitled to the post of first minister in Belfast for the first time since Northern Ireland was founded as a Protestant-majority state in 1921.

The centrist Alliance Party, which doesn’t identify as either nationalis­t or unionist, saw huge surge in support and was set to become the other big winner in the vote, claiming 17 seats.

The victory is a 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 take Northern Ireland out of U.K. rule during decades of violence involving Irish republican militants, Protestant Loyalist paramilita­ries and the U.K. army and police.

“Today ushers in a new era,” Sinn Fein vice-president Michelle O’Neill said shortly before the final results were announced. “Irrespecti­ve of religious, political or social background­s, my commitment is to make politics work.”

O’Neill stressed that it was imperative for Northern Ireland’s politician­s to come together next week to form an Executive — the devolved government of Northern Ireland. If none can be formed within six months, the administra­tion will collapse, triggering a new election and more uncertaint­y.

There is “space in this state for everyone, all of us together,” O’Neill said. “There is an urgency to restore an Executive and start putting money back in people’s pockets, to start to fix the health service. The people can’t wait.”

While a Sinn Fein win would signal a historic shift that shows diminishin­g support for unionist parties, it’s far from clear what happens next because of Northern Ireland’s complicate­d powershari­ng politics and ongoing tussles over post-Brexit arrangemen­ts.

Under a mandatory power-sharing system created by the 1998 peace agreement that ended decades of Catholic-Protestant conflict, the jobs of first minister and deputy first minister are split between the biggest unionist party and the largest nationalis­t one. Both posts must be filled for a government to function, but the Democratic Unionist Party has suggested it might not serve under a Sinn Fein first minister.

The DUP has also said it will refuse to join a new government unless there are major changes to postBrexit border arrangemen­ts, known as the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Those post-Brexit rules, which took effect after Britain left the European Union, have imposed customs and border checks on some goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the U.K. The arrangemen­t was designed to keep an open border between Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland, a key pillar of the peace process.

But it angered many unionists, who maintain that the new checks have created a barrier between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K. that undermines their British identity. In February, the DUP’s Paul Givan resigned as first minister as post-Brexit tensions triggered a fresh political crisis in Northern Ireland.

Saturday’s results bring Sinn Fein’s ultimate goal of a united Ireland a step closer, although Sinn Fein kept unificatio­n out of the spotlight this year during a campaign dominated by the skyrocketi­ng cost of living.

O’Neill has said, on

Irish unificatio­n, there would be no constituti­onal change until voters decide on it. Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald indicated Friday that planning for any unity referendum could come within the next five years.

Polling expert John Curtice, a professor of political science at the University of Strathclyd­e, said Northern Ireland’s latest electoral results are a legacy of Brexit.

“The unionist vote has fragmented because of the divisions within the community over whether or not the Northern Ireland Protocol is something that can be amended satisfacto­rily or whether it needs to be scrapped,” he wrote on the BBC website.

 ?? PETER MORRISON AP ?? Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill speaks after topping the poll at the Medow Bank election count center on Saturday in Magherafel­t, Northern Ireland.
PETER MORRISON AP Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill speaks after topping the poll at the Medow Bank election count center on Saturday in Magherafel­t, Northern Ireland.

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