The British crown is rocking strongly on Europe’s third largest island. Ahead of the Unionists in power for decades, the nationalist Sinn Fein party, in favor of the reunification of Ireland, won a historic victory in Northern Ireland on Saturday.
This success allows the former political showcase of the paramilitary group Irish Republican Army (IRA) to appoint a local Prime Minister, for the first time in a hundred years of history of a province under tension. As the long counting of the ballots cast in the ballot boxes on Thursday to designate the elected members of the Local Assembly comes to an end, almost final results give Sinn Fein several seats ahead of its unionist rival DUP.
DUP acknowledges Sinn Fein victory
Welcoming “a very important moment of change” with the entry into “a new era”, the leader of Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland, Michelle O’Neill, promised to overcome divisions. “I will provide inclusive leadership that celebrates diversity, that guarantees rights and equality for those who have been excluded, discriminated against or ignored in the past.”
In Belfast, the count so far gives Sinn Fein 27 of the 88 declared seats, against 24 for the DUP. He also received the most first preference votes (29% vs. 21.3%). Earlier in the day, the DUP had already recognized, via its leader Jeffrey Donaldson, the victory of Sinn Fein.
A unity government to respect the peace agreements
The government is to be led jointly by nationalists and unionists under the 1998 peace agreement. But talks for its formation promise to be difficult and the risk of paralysis looms, with the unionists refusing to join a government as long as they remain in place. post-Brexit customs controls, which they believe threaten the integrity of the United Kingdom. Another tenor of the party, Edwin Poots, warned that negotiations would take “weeks, with a little luck, or even months”, while the British minister in charge of the province, Brandon Lewis, is expected soon in Belfast.
“People have spoken and our job now is to show up. I expect others to do the same,” said Michelle O’Neill. She also called for a “healthy debate” on the future of Northern Ireland, saying the new executive should prioritize tackling the soaring cost of living. Irish Prime Minister Michael Martin stressed that it was up to “all political parties and elected officials” to “serve the interests of all the inhabitants of Northern Ireland”.
However, the result of the ballot should not only be viewed from the angle of the status of the island. “The success of Sinn Fein takes advantage of the weakness of unionism (…) It does not represent a radical change of opinions in Northern Ireland in favor of reunification”, analyzes indeed Katy Hayward, political scientist at Queen’s University of Belfast . It also notes a fracturing of the unionist vote and the progress of the centrist Alliance party (17 seats).