Northern Ireland Just Declared A Historic Election Result. What Will Happen Next?

·6-min read
Sinn Fein has become the largest party in the Northern Ireland Assembly for the first time in the devolved government's history (Photo: Getty)
Sinn Fein has become the largest party in the Northern Ireland Assembly for the first time in the devolved government's history (Photo: Getty)

Sinn Fein has become the largest party in the Northern Ireland Assembly for the first time in the devolved government's history (Photo: Getty)

Sinn Fein just won the most seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly for the first time in the devolved government’s history – here’s what it could mean for the country’s future.

What you need to know about Sinn Fein

Sinn Fein’s primary goal is to achieve a united Ireland.

This would mean taking Northern Ireland out of the UK and making it one country again with the Republic of Ireland, a century after the island was first split into two.

The party even refuses to use the term Northern Ireland, instead calling the country “the North”.

Once linked with the Irish Republican Army (IRA) during the Troubles – which gradually came to an end after the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 – Sinn Fein is often considered a divisive party because of its complicated history.

Now, it strongly advocates for peace across Ireland, and many of its supporters are of a younger generation who do not remember the conflict of the Troubles.

Why is the party’s win significant?

This is a seismic shift for Northern Irish politics because for the first 50 years of the country’s existence, it was ruled exclusive by unionists.

And ever since the Good Friday Agreement, the country has been led by a unionist politician.

Why have they suddenly received so much more support?

Although it is what Sinn Fein is most known for, the United Ireland argument was not centre stage throughout the party’s election campaign. Instead, it was the cost of living crisis and a promise to help the general public.

To counter their opponents, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) simply warned that a vote for Sinn Fein would lead to another referendum on Irish unity – even though that was barely in the party’s manifesto.

And it seems Irish unification is not a pressing matter right now for voters.

A poll from the University of Liverpool’s Institute of Irish Studies found that only 30% of Irish voters would vote for unity “tomorrow”.

Others have argued that it comes down to the DUP’s disintegration over recent years, as the party has been split following the Brexit vote and the subsequent Northern Ireland Protocol, disliked by most unionists for separating the country from the rest of the UK.

Sinn Fein did actually secure the same number of seats in 2022 and as they did in 2017.

It’s the DUP who have seen a decrease in support, having held onto 28 seats in 2017, before dropping to 25 this year.

DUP MP Emma Little-Pengelly even admitted: “What we’ve seen is a fracturing of unionism – there hasn’t been a dramatic change in the size of the vote.”

Northern Ireland Assembly how the state of the parties has changed (Photo: PA GraphicsPress Association Images)
Northern Ireland Assembly how the state of the parties has changed (Photo: PA GraphicsPress Association Images)

Northern Ireland Assembly how the state of the parties has changed (Photo: PA GraphicsPress Association Images)

What does all this mean for the Northern Ireland Assembly?

The party ousted their unionist opponents, winning a total of 27 seats in the Assembly compared to the DUP’s 25 in the election, making them the first nationalist party to have a majority in Stormont.

However, Sinn Fein’s victory does not mean that the party can already start governing independently – the power-sharing system in place in Northern Ireland means Sinn Fein has to govern with the DUP.

Sinn Fein’s vice-president Michelle O’Neill, who leads the party in Northern Ireland, can now take on the first minister role for the country but she cannot assume the position until the DUP appoint a deputy, who will actually be equal to her in status.

They cannot hold office without the other, and the DUP is currently refusing to take its place in the Northern Ireland Assembly.

What’s the hold-up?

The DUP says it will not nominate any ministers to Stormont until Westminster acts on the Northern Ireland Protocol.

The protocol is a fundamental part of the current Brexit arrangements, and was championed by Boris Johnson within his first months in office.

It means Northern Ireland has to follow the trade rules of the EU, despite leaving the bloc along with the rest of the UK. It is still part of the UK but there are now checks on goods travelling from Britain to Northern Ireland.

The protocol was meant to prevent Northern Ireland putting up a hard border with the Republic of Ireland – a problem which contributed to the past tensions in Ireland – as long as the north continued to follow EU regulations like its southern neighbour.

However, Northern Ireland unionists think this setup undermines its position with the rest of the union, and claim that this is an “existential threat” to the country’s place in the UK.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, leader of the DUP, even withdrew Paul Givan as the first minister of Northern Ireland in February to protest the protocol.

DUP MP Gavin Robinson said his party wants a functioning government but needs to prioritise the “infectious nature of the protocol and the damage that it’s doing”.

It means the government is currently in a stalemate if the DUP does not nominate a deputy first minister.

For now, the assembly goes on in a caretaker capacity and the ministers who were in their roles prior to the election stay on – the executive is made up of the first and deputy first ministers, along with eight others.

This will go on for up to six months. After that, a new election could be called or the Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis will come up with an alternative.

Does this mean there could be a united Ireland on the horizon?

In short – no, not necessarily.

The party has not proposed a border poll just yet, but said it is working towards a unity referendum within a “five-year framework”.

It’s more likely this would be a key component of its future campaigns – to put forward a referendum in the years to come.

It would also need Westminster government to approve it, which seems unlikely as Downing Street is keen to squash the separatist sentiment in Scotland right now.

A border poll would also be necessary in the Republic of Ireland, where Sinn Fein is winning more votes than other parties too.

The Irish Taoiseach Micheal Martin said he was “amused” by such a suggestion that a united Ireland could be on the cards.

He told RTE’s Morning Ireland: “That was not the mandate sought by Sinn Fein in the last three weeks.

“The whole campaign was on cost of living, on health and on housing.

“The border poll was nearly buried from its documentation and its manifesto and, (as) soon as the votes are counted, it is brought back into centre stage.”

Martin added: “This was an election fought on current topical issues and, therefore, I think parties could lose out if they do not respond to what people said to them on the doorsteps.”

This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.

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