Political Earthquake In Northern Ireland As Sinn Fein Emerges As Largest Party

today7 May 2022 1

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Sinn Fein has made political history after emerging as the largest party in Northern Ireland.

After years of lagging behind its rival the Democratic Unionist Party, with whom it shares power, the nationalist party has now emerged on top with the potential to change the political landscape in the Northern Ireland.

Its position as the largest party means a poll on the reunification of Ireland is now far more likely.

Sinn Fein, the former political wing of the IRA that favours Irish reunification, has won 27 seats which means numerically they now cannot be beaten by the DUP.

The results mean that Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill — who has served as deputy first minister from 2020 — should be appointed as first minister, a post the DUP had held for two decades.

Under Northern Ireland’s power-sharing system, 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.

The post of first minister has the same constitutional weight as the deputy post, but the change to Sinn Fein represents a symbolic shift in Northern Irish politics and could lead to questions around Irish reunification intensifying.

However, under the 1998 Good Friday agreement, it is up to the British government to call a referendum if they believe a “yes” majority looks likely on both sides of the border. Opinion polls have consistently shown most voters in Northern Ireland favour the status quo.

The DUP has already suggested it may not be willing to serve under a Sinn Fein first minister, a situation that would plunge Northern Ireland into further uncertainty and would almost certainly guarantee another election.

O’Neill used her formal victory speech on Saturday afternoon to send a message to the DUP.

She said that the electorate wanted politicians to get working on solving everyday issues, such as the healthcare waiting lists and the rising cost of living.

“And that’s the reason why on Monday we must all turn up together,” O’Neill said.

“That’s the reason why on Monday, 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.

“I will lead my team to Stormont on Monday. The people have told us during the course of this election that they expect us to work together. The people are right.”

A standout factor in the DUP’s backsliding at this year’s elections has largely been attributed to dissatisfaction with Brexit and the Northern Irish protocol, which has resulted in checks on some goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK, disrupting trade.

The arrangement was designed to maintain an open border between Northern Ireland and the republic, which remains a member of the EU.

It was considered essential to honour the peace process and to prevent the need for a hard border on the island of Ireland, but some unionists believe it creates a barrier with the rest of the UK and undermines their British identity.

The DUP has also said it will refuse to join a new government unless there are major changes to the post-Brexit border arrangements under the Northern Ireland Protocol.

In February, the DUP’s Paul Givan resigned as first minister in protest at the protocol, meaning O’Neill also automatically lost her post.

Reflecting on his party’s performance shortly after he was re-elected in Lagan Valley, DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson said one the “key messages…is that unionism simply can’t afford the divisions that exist”.

“The DUP is very much in the game at the moment,” he added.

“I have made it clear we need the government to take decisive action on the protocol. Words are not enough.”

Michelle O'Neill reacts with party leader Mary Lou McDonald, after the count at the Magherafelt Meadowbank sports centre in Magherafelt, Co Londonderry.
Michelle O’Neill reacts with party leader Mary Lou McDonald, after the count at the Magherafelt Meadowbank sports centre in Magherafelt, Co Londonderry.

PAUL FAITH via Getty Images

Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis encouraged the parties to form an Executive “as soon as possible”.

He said: “The people of Northern Ireland deserve a stable and accountable local government that delivers on the issues that matter most to them.

“The electorate delivered a number of messages on Thursday. They were clear that they want a fully functioning devolved government in Northern Ireland, they want the issues around the Protocol addressed, and that they want politics to work better.”

Shadow Northern Ireland secretary Peter Kyle said his party could act as an “honest broker”.

Congratulating new assembly members, he said: “It is healthy for Northern Ireland that parties from either community can nominate a first minister and shows the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement working.

“Unionism will still have a strong voice within powersharing and calls for progress on the remaining issues of the protocol have been heard and should not prevent a return to the executive.

“The Government must now prioritise practical solutions through negotiation with the EU and not chase headlines with empty threats.”

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