Sinn Féin Is Expected To Win The Most Seats In The Northern Ireland Assembly

sinn fein ireland northern assembly

After a symbolic breakthrough for Irish nationalism in Northern Ireland’s assembly election, Sinn Féin is on track to become the largest party at Stormont.

With 29 percent of the first-preference vote, the party’s deputy leader, Michelle O’Neill, will become the region’s first minister, the first nationalist to hold the position in a historic turnabout and a major setback for unionism.

With transfer votes still being tabulated on Friday night, it was evident that the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) had lost ground in the first preference vote, falling to 21.3 percent. Former DUP special adviser Tim Cairns tweeted, “A tragedy for the DUP.”

The centrist Alliance was the other huge winner in Thursday’s election, with 13.5 percent of the vote, putting it in third place and demonstrating the growing importance of voters who reject nationalist and unionist identities.

If Boris Johnson’s government does not rewrite the Northern Ireland protocol with the EU, as the DUP requires, a predicted DUP boycott could delay and possibly disrupt the establishment of a new power-sharing executive. That would raise doubts about O’Neill becoming prime minister, but it would not affect the psychological impact of a Sinn Féin triumph.

Given that Northern Ireland was formed based on a unionist majority, the result was seismic, according to Jon Tonge, a University of Liverpool politics professor and expert on the region. “A party that doesn’t want Northern Ireland to exist and won’t even use the phrase will become it’s most powerful. It will not lead to a border referendum, but it is a step forward on the long path to Irish reunification.”

90 members of the legislature were elected using proportional representation in 18 five-member districts. The turnout was 63.6 percent, which was similar to the 2017 assembly election.

According to Nicholas Whyte, a psephologist, and expert on Northern Ireland elections, Sinn Féin was on track to win more seats than the 27 it gained in the previous election, overtaking the DUP, which was expected to lose some of its 28 seats.

The Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), and the Green Party, which all lost support, appeared to be on track to double their previous total of eight seats. Final seats will be determined by transfers, with the count expected to continue on Saturday.

The cost of living and health care were voters’ top concerns, but the campaign was dominated by unionist outrage over the post-Brexit Northern Ireland protocol, which creates a trade border in the Irish Sea, and the race for the first ministership between Sinn Féin and the DUP.

This put pressure on the UUP and SDLP, allowing Alliance to take advantage of the growing number of people in the center who are fed up with conventional Orange/Green tribalism.

Unionists took solace in the fact that overall support for unionist parties outnumbered support for nationalist parties by a slim margin.

Opinion polls show strong support for Northern Ireland remaining in the United Kingdom, but Sinn Féin hopes to build momentum toward an Irish unity referendum, a goal aided by the party’s growing popularity in the Republic of Ireland, where it now leads the opposition in the Dublin parliament under McDonald.

Many unionists blame the DUP for the protocol, which they believe weakens Northern Ireland’s standing in the UK, and several have migrated to the Traditional Unionist Voice, a right-wing opponent. The MP and DUP leader, Jeffrey Donaldson, gained back some support by portraying his party as a bulwark against a Sinn Féin first minister.

Donaldson said he would not lead the DUP into the executive – which cannot be constituted without his party – unless the procedure was changed, increasing pressure on Downing Street to change the Brexit deal to avoid a prolonged crisis in Northern Ireland.

Alliance leader Naomi Long asked the DUP to “stop causing instability and start doing government” by accepting the electorate’s will.

Since 2007, a DUP first minister has served with a Sinn Féin deputy first minister. Although both positions have equal authority, the more distinguished title has become a proxy for strength. There have been suggestions to modify the titles to co-first minister and overhaul the power-sharing laws enacted after the Good Friday Agreement, which did not account for the growth of a centrist political force.