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Sinn Fein’s performance in Northern Ireland has shown there are “big questions” around the future of the UK “as a political entity”, Nicola Sturgeon has said.
The nationalist party looks to be closing in on victory at Stormont, taking the most seats and selecting the country’s next First Minister.
And Scotland’s First Minister has said the result throws the future into doubt, with strong nationalist performances in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland this week.
Speaking to the PA news agency on Saturday, after her party increased its lead in Thursday’s council elections, Ms Sturgeon said: “If (Sinn Fein) emerge as the largest party today in Northern Ireland which looks very likely, that will be an extraordinary result and something that seemed impossible not that long ago.”
She added: “There’s no doubt there are big fundamental questions being asked of the UK as a political entity right now.
“They’re being asked here in Scotland, they’re being asked in Northern Ireland, they’re being asked in Wales and I think we’re going to see some fundamental changes to UK governance in the years to come and I am certain one of those changes is going to be Scottish independence.”
But, regardless of the changes she predicts, the First Minister said all of the nations of the British Isles will continue to co-operate regardless.
“Scotland, England, Wales, Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland – we already sit around the British Irish Council table, and we will continue to do so, no matter whether Scotland is independent or not,” she said.
“The British Isles is not going away and will continue to co-operate but, for Scotland, co-operating on the basis of equality as an independent country will be much, much better than the situation just now.”
Meanwhile, the First Minister said this week’s local elections were not a “referendum on a referendum” and her party’s gains did not bolster the push for independence.
Speaking from Dundee as she celebrated the SNP taking majority control of the city’s council, Ms Sturgeon said: “This election was a local council election, I didn’t go into it arguing that it was all about independence, so I’m not going to come out of it and argue that somehow retrospectively it was all about independence.
“People in any election will vote for a whole variety of reasons. In this election, I think they were voting principally because they want more action on the cost of living crisis and they want to see the Westminster government step up, so it was a strong message on that.
“The SNP vote share went up, obviously the leading pro-independence party, and after the SNP the next big winners were the Greens -(anoher) pro-independence party. So I think that’s significant and we take a lot of heart from it.”
The number of councillors elected in Scotland rose for every party except the Scottish Tories, who dropped 62.
The SNP increased their representatives by 22, with Labour boosting by 20, the Lib Dems by 20 and the Greens by 16.
When asked if the election was a “referendum on a referendum”, the First Minister said: “It wasn’t – we won a mandate for a referendum this time last year, preparations for that are underway.
“Certainly, having the victory of the scale we had yesterday, with the Greens doing relatively well too, it certainly doesn’t harm the case for independence, but that case was not resting on the outcome of the council election.”