BELFAST, Northern Ireland — 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. Sinn Fein will now be the first minister to Belfast, for the first time in the history of Northern Ireland’s establishment as a Protestant-majority country 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.
Sinn Fein’s victory in Northern Ireland is an important milestone. The group has been associated with the Irish Republican Army for decades. This paramilitary group used bullets and bombs to overthrow British rule.
“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. The administration that cannot be formed in six months will fail, which would trigger a new election, and further 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 power-sharing politics and ongoing tussles over post-Brexit arrangements.
A mandatory power-sharing arrangement was created in 1998 to end decades of Catholic/Protestant conflict. The jobs of first and deputy minister are shared between the largest unionist party as well as the largest nationalist. The government must have both ministers, although the Democratic Unionist Party suggested that it may not be able to serve as a Sinn Fein first-minister.
DUP said that it won’t join a government without major reforms to post-Brexit borders arrangements (known as the Northern Ireland Protocol).
The post-Brexit rules that came into effect following Britain’s exit from the European Union impose customs and borders checks on certain goods coming into Northern Ireland from other parts of the U.K. It was intended to preserve an open border, which is a critical pillar of peace negotiations between Northern Ireland’s and EU members Ireland.
However, it upset many unionists who claim that new checks created a barrier between Northern Ireland (and the rest of Britain) that threatens 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. Mary Lou McDonald of Sinn Fein suggested Friday that any referendum on unity could be organized 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.
Boris Johnson said that trying to persuade the DUP and press the EU for major changes to post-Brexit arrangements would be a challenge. Johnson’s own Conservative party lost at least 450 seats in Thursday’s local election.
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