Belfast, Northern Ireland (AP) – Irish nationalist Sinn Féin was widely expected to become the largest group in the Northern Ireland Assembly for the first time, giving it the right to be Belfast’s first minister, as a vote count in this week’s election resumed Saturday.
Sinn Fein’s victory would be a milestone for a party long associated with the Irish Republican Army, a paramilitary group that has used bombs, bullets and other forms of violence to try to bring Northern Ireland out of UK rule during decades of turmoil – where the British Army and the Royal Ulster Division, as well as Protestant loyalist paramilitary forces, vigorously.
Victory would bring Sinn Fein closer to the ultimate goal of a united Ireland. But the party kept the unit out of the spotlight during a campaign that was dominated by more pressing concerns, the skyrocketing cost of living.
With around 51 seats counted from 90 so far, the results show Sinn Fein has 18 seats, while the DUP, which has been the largest in the Northern Ireland Assembly for two decades, has 14.
The Centrist Alliance party, which is not defined as nationalist or unitary, saw an increase in support and is set to be the other big winner in the election. It has 10 seats so far.
Unionist parties have led the government since the formation of Northern Ireland as a majority Protestant country in 1921.
While a Sinn Fein victory would be a historic shift showing the weakening of support for union parties, it is not clear what will happen next.
Under a mandatory power-sharing system established by the 1998 Peace Agreement that ended decades of Catholic-Protestant conflict, the jobs of first minister and deputy prime minister were divided between the largest union party and the largest nationalist party.
Both positions must be filled for the government to function, but the DUP has indicated that it may not operate under a Sinn Fein first minister.
The DUP has also said it will refuse to join a new government unless there are major changes to post-Brexit border arrangements, known as the Northern Ireland Protocol, which many unionists oppose.
Post-Brexit rules imposed customs and border checks on some goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK. The arrangement is designed to maintain an open border between Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland, a key pillar of the peace process.
But it angered unionists, who asserted that the new checks had created a barrier between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom that undermined their British identity.
In February the DUP’s Paul Gevan resigned as first minister, as post-Brexit tensions led to a new political crisis in Northern Ireland.
Polling expert John Curtis, professor of political science at the University of Strathclyde, said the Northern Ireland results are a legacy of Brexit.
“The union vote has been fragmented by divisions within society over whether the Northern Ireland Protocol is something that can be satisfactorily amended or whether it should be repealed,” he wrote on the BBC’s website.
He added that persuading the DUP to join a new government would be a headache for British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
Sinn Fein deputy chair Michelle O’Neill said the party wanted to work “in partnership with others”.
“It’s the only way we’re going to get more and more for the people here, both in terms of the cost-of-living crisis and trying to reform our health services,” she said.
She also said that with regard to Irish unification, there would be no constitutional change until the electorate had decided on it.
Party leader Mary Lou MacDonald indicated on Friday that planning for any unity referendum could come within the next five years.
The full results of the election, which uses the proportional representation system, were expected later in the week.
The new lawmakers will meet next week to try to form an executive body. If none is formed within six months, the administration will collapse, leading to new elections and more uncertainty.