Sinn Fein set for historic N.Ireland victory
Irish nationalists Sinn Fein were poised Saturday for a historic first-ever win in elections for Northern Ireland’s assembly, but pro-UK unionists threatened anew to boycott the devolved government.
Tallies from Thursday’s complex proportional voting showed Sinn Fein, the former political wing of the IRA paramilitary group, had secured 21 seats for the 90-seat legislature, setting it on course for victory.
England, Wales and Scotland also voted in local and regional elections on Thursday, punishing embattled Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s scandal-mired Conservatives but without a landslide for the main opposition Labour party.
Johnson is expected to lay out his post-election plans in the Queen’s Speech in parliament on Tuesday, which will have to take into account the thorny issue of forming a government in Northern Ireland, riven for decades by sectarian bloodshed.
Sinn Fein, which wants a referendum on reunifying Ireland a century after Northern Ireland was created as a Protestant statelet, is targeting 28 seats to claim the role of first minister for leader Michelle O’Neill.
After winning her own seat Friday, O’Neill called it “the election of a generation” and “time for real change”.
But Sinn Fein has been downplaying prospects for an imminent referendum on ending UK sovereignty over Northern Ireland, saying it could see one being held in the next five years.
The pro-UK Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) occupied the role of first minister in the outgoing Stormont assembly, before it collapsed the executive in protest at post-Brexit trading rules between the UK and EU.
– ‘Long shadow’ –
DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson said the government in London should rip up the so-called Northern Ireland Protocol, which unionists argue threatens their place in the wider UK.
“We are a democratic party and I’ve said that we will accept the outcome of the election,” Donaldson told the BBC Saturday.
But he added: “We need to remove the long shadow of the protocol that is inhibiting our ability to operate and function properly within the political institutions.
“And the sooner that happens, the sooner we’ll be in a position to move forward,” Donaldson said, as Johnson’s Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis prepared to meet the party leaders in Belfast on Monday.
Northern Ireland’s government cannot function without DUP endorsement of a new executive, and the parties would have 24 weeks to resolve their differences or face a new election.
The other big winner was the cross-community Alliance party, which said its strong showing in third place underlined the need for Northern Ireland to move past old divisions.
“We are serious about making Stormont work. We are not interested in playing games,” Alliance leader Naomi Long said, stressing voters cared most about a cost-of-living crisis affecting the UK.
Katy Hayward, professor of political sociology at Queen’s University Belfast, said it would be “extraordinary and highly significant to have a nationalist party holding the most seats in the assembly”.
She said that any referendum on Irish reunification was some way off, but that Ireland’s Foreign Minister Simon Coveney should also come to Northern Ireland with Lewis on Monday.
“The success of Sinn Fein, if nothing else, underlines the importance of the Irish dimension. There can’t be any solution magicked up by the UK government unilaterally,” Hayward told AFP.
– Johnson under fire –
In the mainland UK meanwhile, the Conservatives lost control of key councils, including in London, and suffered an overall loss of almost 400 councillors in Thursday’s vote.
Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi insisted on Saturday that Johnson remained an electoral asset, despite becoming the first prime minister to be fined by police, during an ongoing probe into lockdown-busting parties at Downing Street.
An unknown number of Conservative MPs have submitted letters of no-confidence in Johnson, and Zahawi said that “people don’t like to vote for split parties, for teams that are divided.”
Simon Usherwood, professor of politics and international studies at The Open University, said the results were at “the worst end of the kind of the range of expected outcomes” for Johnson.
“The picture does look more pessimistic for Johnson and I think it is going to raise more questions about whether he can survive a challenge,” Usherwood told AFP.
Tory backbenchers could start plotting against Johnson when they return to parliament next week, “particularly if the Queen’s Speech doesn’t deliver something that looks like a real plan of action,” including on the Northern Ireland protocol, he said.