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Sinn Fein hails ‘new era’ as it wins Northern Ireland vote

The Irish nationalist party Sinn Féin won an historic vote in Northern Ireland that will make it the largest party in the Northern Ireland Assembly for the first time.

With almost all the votes from Thursday’s election counted on Saturday, Sinn Fein took 27 of the Assembly’s 90 seats. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which has dominated Northern Ireland’s legislature for two decades, fell into second place with 24 seats.

The milestone victory for Sinn Féin, which has long been associated with the Irish Republican Army, means its vice president, Michelle O’Neill, will be entitled to become first minister, an unprecedented event for the party, which supports unification with Ireland.

A unionist party in support of continued British rule of Northern Ireland has had the most seats in the assembly since the country was formed in 1921.

The results are a “defining moment for our politics and for our people,” O’Neill said. “Today ushers in a new era which I believe presents us all with an opportunity to reimagine relationships in this society on the basis of fairness, on the basis of equality and on the basis of social justice.”

Sinn Féin’s Vice President Michelle O’Neill vowed to “to make politics work,” in Northern Ireland.
AP Photo/Peter Morrison

“Irrespective of religious, political or social backgrounds, my commitment is to make politics work.”

The centrist Alliance Party, which doesn’t identify as nationalist or unionist, received a huge surge of support and claimed 17 seats, more than doubling its previous number in 2017.

So far, the Ulster Unionist Party has returned nine seats and the SDLP seven.

O’Neill said that it was imperative for Northern Ireland’s politicians to come together next week to form an executive — the devolved government of Northern Ireland. If none can be formed within six months, the administration will collapse, triggering a new election and more uncertainty.

The power-sharing agreement created by the 1998 peace agreement that ended decades of Catholic-Protestant conflict requires that the jobs of first minister and deputy first minister are split between the largest nationalist party and the largest unionist party.

Both posts must be filled for the government to function, and the DUP has hinted it might not serve under a Sinn Fein first minister.

The UK’s Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis said he would meet with the party leaders over the coming days with the aim of restoring the institutions “at the earliest possible moment,” the BBC reported.

“I encourage the parties to form an executive as soon as possible. The people of Northern Ireland deserve a stable and accountable local government that delivers on the issues that matter most to them,” he said.

The previous executive collapsed in February when DUP assembly member Paul Givan resigned as first minister. The resignation also removed O’Neill from her position as deputy first minister.

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has not yet made a decision on whether the party will help form a government.

Former DUP leader, Edwin Poots, has said the party “wouldn’t be happy” with Sinn Féin taking the first minister position, the Irish Times reported. But, he continued, “we’re a democratic party, we have to take that decision at an officer and executive level.”

Election staff begin vote counting in Belfast in the Northern Ireland Assembly election early Friday in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Friday, May 6, 2022.
Election staff begin vote counting in Belfast in the Northern Ireland Assembly election early Friday in Belfast, Northern Ireland on May 6, 2022.
AP Photo/Peter Morrison

His party’s current focus is the Northern Ireland Protocol, part of the UK’s Brexit agreement with the European Union which keeps Northern Ireland aligned with the EU single market for goods, Poots said.

Some unionists have said the protocol created a trade border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

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