Sinn Fein on race for historic Northern Ireland election win

Sinn Fein deputy leader Michelle O’Neill reacts as she is elected during the Northern Ireland Assembly Elections at the Meadowbank Sports Arena, in Magherafelt, Northern Ireland, May 6, 2022. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne REFILE-QUALITY REPEAT

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  • Sinn Fein could be largest party for first time
  • Leader Michelle O’Neill eyes First Minister role
  • Party has strong lead after early results
  • Rival DUP says election too close to call

BELFAST, May 6 (Reuters) – Sinn Fein, the former political wing of the IRA, looked set to claim top spot in elections in British-controlled Northern Ireland for the first time on Friday, a historic shift that could bring the once-remote prospect of a united Ireland closer.

Early results echoed pre-election polls in indicating Sinn Fein was likely to become the first Irish nationalist party to win the most seats in an election to the regional assembly since the state’s creation in 1921.

Final results were not expected until late Friday or early Saturday.

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A Sinn Fein victory would not change the region’s status, as the referendum required to leave the United Kingdom is at the discretion of the British government and likely years away.

But the psychological implications of an Irish nationalist First Minister would be huge after a century of domination by pro-British parties, supported exclusively by the region’s Protestant population.

Demographic trends have long indicated that they would eventually be eclipsed by favorably Catholic Irish nationalist parties who favor uniting the north with the Republic of Ireland.

Once shunned by the political establishment on both sides of the border for its links to paramilitary violence, Sinn Fein is already the most popular party in the Republic of Ireland, where it has carved out a successful base campaigning on everyday issues such as the cost of living and healthcare.

It followed a similar path in the Northern Irish elections, where it focused on economic concerns rather than Irish unity and had a six-point lead over its nearest rival, the struggling pro-British Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), across the final campaign polls

Northern Ireland’s complex proportional representation voting system means the party with the most first-preference votes does not necessarily win most seats.

But with 16 of the 90 seats declared, Sinn Fein was well ahead on 10 seats while DUP were on two. The cross-community Alliance Party was also on two seats and appeared set for its strongest ever result.

“Sinn Fein will be the largest party for sure,” said political scientist Nicholas Whyte. The DUP, which beat Sinn Fein in the last election by just one seat, is likely to lose a couple of seats while Sinn Fein might gain one or two, he said.

DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson said the result would be very tight and that it was far too early to call the election.

Committed to peaceful coexistence and political power-sharing in Northern Ireland since the Good Friday peace accord in 1998, which ended three decades of violence, Sinn Fein wants planning for a border poll to begin across the island.

The main nationalist and unionist rivals are obliged to share power under the terms of the 1998 peace deal. But the DUP has said it will no longer do so unless the protocol governing Northern Ireland’s trade with the rest of the UK following its exit from the European Union is totally overhauled.

That raises the prospect of a stalemate with no new government being elected as Britain and the EU are at an impasse in talks on how to remove many of the checks on goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK.

The election is likely to reaffirm that a majority of lawmakers in the regional assembly favor retaining the protocol, which was designed in the wake of Brexit to avoid fraying the EU single market via the open border with Ireland.

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Writing by Padraic Halpin and Conor Humphries; Editing by Nick Macfie

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.


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