Sinn Fein claims crown as Northern Ireland's largest party

Voters feel the region is on the cusp of major political change after Irish nationalists trump British loyalists

Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald and Sinn Fein northern leader Michelle O'Neill arrive at the Belfast Counton. Getty Images
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A century after Northern Ireland was founded to keep the region out of the new Irish nation, in a historic breakthrough, republican party Sinn Fein was confirmed on Saturday as the largest in the local assembly.

Northern Ireland was created in 1921 to keep the Protestants of the area out of the new state created in Dublin. With an unassailable lead, Sinn Fein now has the right to provide the leader, known as the First Minister, of an entity that it does not believe should exist.

Sinn Fein was confirmed as taking 27 seats amid a headline-stealing surge by a normally marginal centrist party, demonstrating the polarisation in the vote.

Sinn Fein's Michelle O'Neill will now expect the other main leaders — the Democratic Unionist Party's Jeffery Donaldson and Alliance's Naomi Long — to join with her in a new administration, though the unionist party has said it will not participate until a post-Brexit trade deal with the EU is overhauled.

With all 90 seats filled, behind Sinn Fein are the DUP with 25 seats and the Alliance Party at 17. The UUP took nine seats, while the SDLP won eight, and the TUV and People Before Profit secured one each, as did two independents.

In terms of straight first-preference votes, Sinn Fein was at 29 per cent, while the main unionist party, the DUP, took about 21 per cent.

"The people have told us during the course of this election that they expect us to work together. The people are right,” Ms O'Neill said.

"Today represents a very significant moment of change. 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."

Mr Donaldson said his party would continue to make its participation conditional.

“Let’s cross all the bridges when we get to them,” he said.

He also warned the unionist tradition that it must overcome internal divisions to fend off the surge from nationalists.

"There's a big lesson for unionism here," he said. "A divided unionism doesn't deliver additional seats at Westminster or indeed at Stormont. That's the reality of the situation. And therefore I think, as unionist leaders, we need to sit down and consider the outcome of this election and next time round let's be in a position where we're able to win seats because we're more united."

The symbolism of the shift of largest party has been felt across Belfast. With turnout a shade under the previous level after a lacklustre campaign, the counting exercise pointed on Friday to a dramatic outcome of the day-long tallying.

In the gloom of the steady rain outside central Belfast's City Hall, two tour guides gave competing accounts of the region's history at the separate pillars of the front gate.

On one side, a dozen people in all-weather clothes listened as the guide pointed out the landmarks of the surrounding square — the towering granite bank headquarters, the Linen Hall Library and the Victorian-era municipal headquarters. All are places built in the heyday of Protestant-dominated industrial growth.

At the other column, a similar number clustered around a tour guide who was discussing how the divisions in Northern Ireland started with the clearances of native Irish and the influx of Protestant loyalists to King James in the 17th century. In particular, the guide discussed the “myth” that thousands of Protestants were killed in a Catholic uprising in 1641 and the power of that claim to nurse anti-Irish grievances centuries later.

At the nearby Linen Hall Library, an exhibit of political posters from the 30 years of the Troubles, which culminated in the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, serves as a reminder of the depths of local divisions.

Robbie Baxter, a retired schoolteacher from a “Protestant and Unionist background”, feared the election was a threshold moment that could precede the destruction of the 1998 settlement.

Mr Baxter fears the outgoing largest party, the DUP, could refuse to work alongside Sinn Fein, as the Good Friday power-sharing arrangements stipulate.

The DUP has been a champion of the British exit from the EU and a fierce opponent of the Northern Ireland Protocol, which has kept the region in the bloc's trading zone but caused friction in commerce with the UK mainland.

“I think the DUP are being pulled in a direction they haven't gone before,” Mr Baxter told The National.

“I would like to see the Good Friday Agreement work. I think there were signs that it was beginning to work but instability has tipped into it and it is veering towards the edge.”

At a coffee shop not far from the library, Tony Marlow, a barista, agreed his customers were open to the new tastes the business offers but was less sure that their votes were ready to move in a new political direction.

Although he claimed to have been caught off guard by the move to leave the EU, he did not get around to voting this time before the polls closed.

“In the end, I felt like there was nobody good to vote for. I didn't want to vote for the DUP and I didn't want to vote for Sinn Fein, so it felt like my vote didn't really matter,” Mr Marlow said.

“All the other parties out there don't really have the support but I do fear a major drastic change could happen in this election, just like the way Brexit happened, which came out of nowhere for me.”

After the election, the Northern Ireland parties need to agree on a new programme for government within 24 weeks or face another vote.

Alliance more than doubled its seats and its leader, Ms Long, said all sides must work together.

“I think given all the challenges that we face, if we squander this opportunity people will not forgive us, so we need to get in there,” she said.

Updated: June 21, 2023, 9:13 AM