Northern Ireland will have nationalist leader for first time in history — Analysis
Sinn Fein called for an open debate about Irish reunification after a historic victory in the elections
Sinn Fein’s leader in Northern Ireland, Michelle O’Neill, has called for an “honest debate”On Irish reunification after her party became the largest in Northern Ireland following elections. It was the first time in the British-ruled territory’s history. But consensus may prove difficult and necessary.
Sinn Fein secured the most seats in Northern Ireland’s assembly elections over the weekend, emerging with 27 compared to the Democratic Unionist Party’s (DUP) 25. Non-sectarian Alliance Party was elected with 17 seats. The Ulster Unionist Party got nine and the Social Democratic and Labour Party, a smaller nationalist party took eight.
The result is Sinn Fein’s best ever performance in Northern Ireland’s 100-year history, and marks the first time an Irish nationalist party has become the largest in the territory’s assembly.
“Today represents a very significant moment of change. It’s a defining moment in our politics and for our people,” O’Neill said on Sunday. O’Neill, a nationalist leader, added that it should be now an “honest debate” on unifying Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland to the south, a core tenet of Sinn Fein’s platform.
It may not be easy. Following the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland, power-sharing legislation was enacted. It required the two biggest parties of the 90-seat Assembly to join forces in order for a government. The DUP – which represents the territory’s Protestant population and bitterly opposes unification – will likely not agree to holding a poll on the issue.
Moreover, a so-called border poll can only be called when it appears that a majority of Northern Ireland’s population wants to rejoin the Republic. Sinn Fein has become the largest party in this assembly. However, the Alliance Party still holds the majority of the seats.
Their differences on the subject of reunification aside, Sinn Fein is now attempting to form an alliance with the DUP. If they fail to do this, it will lead to the imposition direct British rule over the country and new elections. The DUP has vowed to abstain from government unless the Brexit Agreement between the UK and EU – which has established a tariff barrier between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK – is scrapped or overhauled.
Sinn Fein, formerly the political wing of Ireland’s Republican Army, (IRA), is now the party that dominates Catholic regions of Northern Ireland. It operates a strong patronage network and, in recent opinion polls, has become the most-popular party in Republic of Ireland. While the party once stood for the end of British rule by any means necessary, it has since rebranded itself as a democratic socialist party and embraced hot-button ‘woke’ issues like gay and transgender rights, increasedRefugee flows and internet censorship
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