Sinn Féin assembly victory fuels debate on future of union

Northern Ireland has slipped into political crisis after Sinn Féin’s triumph in the assembly election triggered calls for a referendum on a united Ireland and the Democratic Unionist party vowed to block the formation of a new power-sharing executive at Stormont.

Jubilant Sinn Féin supporters celebrated across the region on Saturday when final vote counts confirmed a historic victory that turned the former IRA mouthpiece into the biggest party, with the right to nominate the first minister.

Sinn Féin won 29% of the first preference vote and will be the biggest party in the Stormont assembly, a seismic moment for a state that was designed a century ago to have a permanent unionist majority.

The party once led by Gerry Adams seeks to abolish what it considers an illegitimate entity and shuns the term Northern Ireland, instead referring to “the North”, presenting an existential challenge to the UK. Sinn Féin’s MPs boycott Westminster.

In a coded reference to Irish unification, Michelle O’Neill, the party’s deputy president, and the first minister elect, said: “It’s a defining moment for our politics and for our people. 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, irrespective of religious or social backgrounds.”

It was time for Ireland north and south to discuss a new, shared island, she said. “Let’s have a healthy debate about what our future looks like.”

Sinn Féin’s leader, Mary Lou McDonald, had a message for unionists: “Don’t be scared. The future is bright for all of us.”

She added there was a collective responsibility to get the government “up and running quickly”. “This is not a time for theatrics, this is not a time for playing games this is the time for grown-up sensible partnership politics, that’s what people want,” she said. “The idea, at a time of a cost of living crisis, that people would stand on the sidelines and allow people to struggle, and struggle badly, for us is unthinkable, so we would appeal to everybody to take stock.”

Sinn Féin has been in power at Stormont with other parties for 15 years and has promised to make the region work – but it sent a stark message to Boris Johnson’s government that a referendum on a united Ireland was now on the agenda.

The party’s soaring popularity in the Republic of Ireland, where it leads the opposition in the Dublin parliament, will add to No 10’s alarm.

Under the Good Friday agreement the secretary of state for Northern Ireland is supposed to call a referendum if it appears likely a majority wants a united Ireland. Polls show most people favour staying within the UK but Sinn Féin hopes to change the tide within five to 10 years.

On Saturday night Brandon Lewis urged Northern Ireland’s political parties to form an executive as soon as possible. “Over the coming days I will be meeting with all the party leaders and will urge them to restore the Stormont institutions at the earliest possible moment, starting with the nomination of an assembly Speaker within eight days,” he said.

“The government remains committed to the Belfast (Good Friday) agreement and will continue to work with the Northern Ireland parties and the Irish government to deliver its vision for reconciliation, equality, respect for rights and parity of esteem.

“Together, we must move forward towards a brighter future – that means delivering for all the people of Northern Ireland.”

Sinn Féin’s victory set up a clash with the DUP, which lost its pre-eminence and slumped to second place, with 21.3% of the first preference vote, a humiliation that underscored a wider crisis engulfing unionism in the wake of the Northern Ireland protocol, which put a post-Brexit trade border in the Irish Sea.

The DUP leader, Jeffrey Donaldson, said on Saturday he would refuse to join a new devolved administration until the UK government “dealt with” the protocol. That would paralyse Stormont, which would be run by a caretaker administration, and puts pressure on the prime minister to amend the protocol to end the stalemate. The impasse is expected to last weeks if not months and possibly lead to a new election.

Last week, in a sign of uncertainty in the government over how to proceed, ministers in London made clear they would not be introducing a bill in this week’s Queen’s speech giving them powers to override the protocol, having previously briefed they would do so.

On Saturday, having seen her party increase its number of council seats in Scotland, despite having been in power for 15 years, Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, said Sinn Féin’s performance in Northern Ireland had highlighted that there were now big questions around the future of the UK as a political entity.

“There’s no doubt there are big fundamental questions being asked of the UK as a political entity right now,” Sturgeon declared. “They’re being asked here in Scotland, they’re being asked in Northern Ireland, they’re being asked in Wales and I think we’re going to see some fundamental changes to UK governance in the years to come and I am certain that one of those changes is going to be Scottish independence.”

The renewed battle over Northern Ireland’s constitutional place in the union came despite a dramatic surge in support for the centrist Alliance, which soared to 13.5%, putting it in third place and showing the growing clout of a third bloc that eschews nationalist and unionist labels. Alliance deputy leader and MP Stephen Farry, said, despite the Sinn Féin success, most voters had supported parties that wanted the protocol reformed or removed. He urged the DUP to work with the other parties to solve the issue rather than “plunge the UK into a new war with the EU”.

Without a first minister and deputy first minister, the executive cannot function fully, with ministers limited to continuing but not making new policy, signing off budgets or introducing much needed health reforms.

Senior DUP sources said they will seek an urgent summit with ministers in Downing Street to press home the message that their boycott could put the assembly on pause until Christmas.

If no executive is formed the Northern Ireland secretary must call a new election, which must then be held within 12 weeks, pushing the chances of a full devolved government back to December.

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