Early polling on Friday showed Sinn Fein emerging as the largest single party in the Northern Ireland Assembly — marking a seismic shift in the province’s politics.
The predicted victory — the first for an Irish nationalist party advocating that Northern Ireland unite with the Republic of Ireland and leave the UK — could foreshadow a future referendum on this issue.
How does the polling look?
Final polls gave Sinn Fein an average of 25% of the vote in the contest for 90 seats in the power-sharing assembly.
That represented a six-point lead over the party’s nearest rival, the pro-British Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). The hardline Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) looks poised to take some support from the DUP.
The DUP’s popularity has shrunk over the past 18 months, partly down to frustrations in UK loyalist communities about Brexit.
Vying alongside it for second place is the cross-community Alliance Party, which has also enjoyed a surge in support from moderate voters.
What would a Sinn Fein win mean?
If it emerges as the largest party, Sinn Fein would be able to nominate the province’s First Minister for the first time ever. The election of a First Minister advocating a united Ireland would represent a sea change in the province’s politics.
As the former political wing of the paramilitary Irish Republican Army (IRA), Sinn Fein is committed to a referendum on reunification with the Republic of Ireland to the south.
However, a referendum that could see Northern Ireland become part of the neighboring Republic of Ireland, and leave the UK, is ultimately at the discretion of the British government and likely to be years away. The Good Friday peace accord does, however, stipulate that if it ever appears “likely” that “a majority of those voting” would support reunification, the UK should enable such a poll.
The party in second place would be able to choose the deputy First Minister — a position that holds the same effective governmental power in Northern Ireland’s unique power-sharing arrangement.
Sinn Fein vice president Michelle O’Neill downplayed its calls for Irish unity during the election campaign. She said the economically left-leaning party was “not fixated” on a date for a sovereignty poll, instead being focused on helping people deal with a cost-of-living crisis.
Led by a younger generation of politicians with fewer links to the IRA and the “Troubles” — a period of sectarian violence between 1968 and 1998 in which 3,600 people were killed — Sinn Fein has seen its political fortunes soar north and south of the border.
In 2020, it altered Dublin’s political landscape by emerging as the largest party in the Republic of Ireland — only to be shut out of power by a center-right coalition deal.
Who takes the deputy role?
A second-place finish for the Alliance Party would also be a huge shift, nudging the DUP into third place as the largest Unionist party.
Pro-British parties, mainly supported by the region’s Protestant population, have been pre-eminent in Northern Ireland for a century.
The DUP, meanwhile, has said it will no longer do so unless there is a total overhaul of the Brexit protocol on Northern Ireland’s trade with the rest of the UK. At present, checks take place between Great Britain and goods arriving into or leaving the province across the Irish Sea. That arrangement — effectively creating a barrier within the United Kingdom — makes many Unionists uncomfortable.
Should the non-aligned Alliance emerge second, the power-sharing rules of the Northern Ireland Executive mean it would have to denominate — at least temporarily — as Unionist to nominate a deputy First Minister. The party, which is trying not to define itself by what for decades was the core dividing line in Northern Irish politics, has indicated in the past that it would not do this.
The Northern Ireland vote took place at the same time as local elections in other parts of the UK, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative party losing control of key councils in London.