Sinn Fein, the former political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), hailed its first election victory in Northern Ireland’s history as a “watershed moment” for the British-held region and called to a debate on the creation of a united Ireland.
Sinn Fein edged out the pro-British Democratic Unionist Party by 27 seats to 24 and two remain to be declared, making it the first Irish nationalist party to secure control of the assembly.
He won 29% of first preference votes against 21.3% for the DUP.
“Today represents a very important moment of change. It is a defining moment in our politics and for our people,” said Sinn Fein leader in Northern Ireland Michelle O’Neill.
She said there should now be an “honest debate” around the party’s goal of unifying the territory with the Republic of Ireland.
Victory will not change the region’s status, as the referendum required to leave the UK is at the discretion of the UK government and likely years away.
But the symbolic significance is huge, ending a century of rule by pro-British parties, backed mostly by the region’s Protestant population.
Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who is also leading a campaign to secede from the UK, was among the first to congratulate Sinn Fein in a Twitter post which hailed a “truly historic result”.
While the largest party has the right to nominate a candidate for prime minister of the region’s mandatory power-sharing government, disagreements with the DUP mean such a nomination could take months.
When asked by a reporter if she expected to become the region’s first Irish nationalist prime minister, O’Neill replied: “The people have spoken”.
DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson has said he will not join government unless the protocol governing Northern Ireland’s trade with the rest of the UK after it leaves the European Union is fully revised.
The DUP has been heavily criticized during the campaign for its handling of Brexit. Removing what she calls an effective trade border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK was a key election promise.
Sinn Fein has long been shunned by the political establishment on both sides of the Irish border for its links to IRA violence during three decades of fighting for Northern Ireland’s place in the UK that have ended with a peace agreement in 1998.
Since then, it has reinvented itself as the most popular party in the Republic of Ireland, where it has carved out a base of success campaigning on day-to-day issues such as the cost of living and healthcare. health.
He followed a similar path in the Northern Irish elections, where he focused on economic concerns rather than Irish unity to appeal to intermediate voters.
The election follows demographic trends that have long indicated that pro-British Protestant parties would eventually be eclipsed by predominantly Catholic Irish nationalist parties that favor unification of the north with the Republic of Ireland.
All Unionist candidates combined secured slightly more votes than all Nationalists in Thursday’s election.
The Cross-Community Alliance Party secured its best ever result with 17 seats as it tries to establish itself as a third pillar of the political system.
Australian Associated Press