Sinn Fein set for historic N.Ireland victory

Irish nationalist Sinn Fein on way to a historic first ever win in election for the Northern Ireland Assembly after vote counting resumed on Saturday. Agency photo
Irish nationalist Sinn Fein on way to a historic first ever win in election for the Northern Ireland Assembly after vote counting resumed on Saturday. Agency photo

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Irish nationalists Sinn Fein were poised for a historic first ever win in election for the Northern Ireland Assembly after vote counting resumed on Saturday. Tallies from Thursday’s complex proportional voting showed that the former political wing of the IRA paramilitary group had secured 18 seats for the 90- seat legislature, setting it on course for victory.
England, Wales and Scotland also voted in local and regional elections on Thursday, punishing embattled Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s scandal-mired Conservative party but without a landslide for the main opposition Labour party.
Johnson is expected to lay out his post-election plan of action in the Queen’s Speech in the Parliament on Tuesday, which will have to take into account the thorny issue of forming a government in Northern Ireland, riven for decades by sectarian bloodshed.
Sinn Fein, which wants a referendum on reunifying Ireland a century after Northern Ireland was created as a Protestant statelet, is targeting 28 seats to claim the role of first minister for leader Michelle O’Neill. After winning her own seat Friday, O’Neill called it “the election of a generation” and “time for real change”.But Sinn Fein has been downplaying prospects for an imminent referendum on ending UK sovereignty over Northern Ireland, saying it could see one being held in the next five years.
The pro-UK Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) occupied the role of first minister in the outgoing Stormont assembly, before it collapsed the executive in protest at post-Brexit trading rules between the UK and EU.
DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson said the government in London should rip up the so-called Northern Ireland Protocol, which unionists argue threatens their place in the wider UK.”The government need to act decisively on the protocol and until they do, I won’t be nominating ministers to the executive,” he told the BBC late Friday, after the DUP’s vote share slid.
Without DUP endorsement of a new executive, Northern Ireland’s government cannot function, and the parties would have 24 weeks to resolve their differences or face a new election. The other big winner was the cross-community Alliance party, which said its strong showing in third place underlined the need for Northern Ireland to move past old divisions.
“We are serious about making Stormont work. We are not interested in playing games,” Alliance leader Naomi Long said, stressing voters cared most about a cost-of-living crisis affecting the UK. British media reported that London’s Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Brandon Lewis, would be in Belfast on Monday for talks ahead of the Queen’s Speech, which lays out the government’s programme.
The Conservatives lost control of key councils, including in London, and suffered an overall loss of almost 400 councillors in Thursday’s vote. Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi insisted on Saturday that Johnson remained an electoral asset, despite becoming the first prime minister to be fined by police, during an ongoing probe into lockdown-busting parties at Downing Street.
An unknown number of Conservative MPs have submitted letters of no-confidence in Johnson, and Zahawi said that “people don’t like to vote for split parties, for teams that are divided.””We’ve got a Queen’s Speech next week where we will demonstrate to the nation that the second half of this parliament is all about dealing with repairing the economy, recovering from Covid, the backlog of the NHS and national security,” Zahawi told Sky News.
Simon Usherwood, professor of politics and international studies at The Open University, said that the local election results were at “the worst end of the kind of the range of expected outcomes”. “The picture does look more pessimistic for Johnson and I think it is going to raise more questions about whether he can survive a challenge,” Usherwood told AFP.
Tory backbenchers could start plotting against Johnson when they return to the Parliament next week “particularly if the Queen’s Speech doesn’t deliver something that looks like a real plan of action,” including on the Northern Ireland protocol, he said.