Sinn Fein called for a united Ireland debate after his historic election victory

  • Sinn Fen won the most seats for the first time
  • Invitations to discuss the unification of Ireland
  • Scottish sturgeon hails ‘historic result’
  • Formation of the government may take months

BELFAST (Reuters) – Sinn Fein, the former political wing of the Irish Republican Army, hailed his first victory in the Northern Ireland Assembly elections as a “decisive moment” for the British-controlled region and called for debate over a united Ireland.

Sinn Féin was ahead of the pro-British Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) by 27 to 24 seats with two seats remaining to declare, making it the first Irish nationalist party to become the largest in a delegated parliament.

Sinn Fein’s leader in Northern Ireland, Michelle O’Neill, said her party received 29% of the DUP’s 21.3% favourite vote.

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She said there should now be an “honest discussion” about the party’s goal of uniting the territory with the Republic of Ireland.

The victory would not change the prestige of the region, because the referendum required for the UK to leave is at the discretion of the British government and likely years later.

But the symbolic significance is enormous, as it ended a century of domination by pro-British parties, supported mostly by the region’s Protestant population.

The DUP, the main supporter of Brexit, has seen support undermined in part by its role in post-Brexit talks between London and Brussels in trade barriers between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who is also campaigning to leave the United Kingdom, was among the first to congratulate Sinn Fein in a Twitter post praising the “truly historic result”.

While the largest party has the right to field a candidate for first minister for Northern Ireland’s compulsory power-sharing government, disagreements with the DUP mean such an appointment could take months.

Asked by a reporter if she expected to become the region’s first Irish national minister, O’Neill said: “People have spoken.”

Democratic Unionist Party leader Jeffrey Donaldson has said his party will not join the government unless the protocol governing Northern Ireland’s trade with the rest of the UK after Brexit is fully reformed.

The DUP campaign focused on a promise to scrap what it calls the border in the Irish Sea.

Donaldson said he will see what British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has to say on the subject in a speech he will deliver next week before deciding his next step. Read more

In a statement, the British government’s Minister for Northern Ireland, Brandon Lewis, called on the parties to set up an executive body as soon as possible.

Sinn Fein has long been shunned by the political establishment on both sides of the Irish border for its links to IRA violence during three decades of fighting for Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom that ended with a 1998 peace deal.

Since then, it has reinvented itself to become the most popular party in the Republic of Ireland, creating a successful base by campaigning on everyday issues such as the cost of living and healthcare.

It followed a similar path in the Northern Ireland elections, focusing on economic concerns rather than Irish unity to attract voters from the center.

The elections follow demographic trends that have long indicated that pro-British Protestant parties will eventually be outnumbered by the predominantly Catholic Irish nationalist parties that favor uniting the north with the Republic of Ireland.

All of the unionist candidates combined received slightly more votes than all the nationalists in Thursday’s election.

The Cross-Communal Alliance party scored its strongest ever result with 17 seats as it seeks to establish itself as the third pillar of the political system.

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Written by Conor Humphreys. Editing by Clelia Ozil and Frank Jacques Daniel

Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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