Credit…Andrew Testa for bohobarmadrid

LONDON — Northern Ireland was founded a century ago in the wake of a nationalist uprising to protect the rights of its predominantly Protestant, pro-British population. But on Friday, Ireland’s largest nationalist party, Sinn Fein, was about to be declared the area’s largest party, a political turning point in a country long torn by sectarian violence.

With a large share of the votes in Friday night’s parliamentary election, Sinn Fein was on track to win the most seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly, an accolade that will enable her to appoint the prime minister in government.

The significance of the election lies not so much in political privilege as in hard-fought history: a nationalist party at the helm in Northern Ireland will spark new hopes for Irish unity, but it could also sow a return to unrest between Catholics and Protestants in an area where delicate power-sharing arrangements have kept the peace for over two decades.

It’s a remarkable coming-of-age for a party many still associate with paramilitary violence.

“For nationalists who have lived in Northern Ireland for decades, it is an emotional moment to see Sinn Fein as the largest party,” said Diarmaid Ferriter, a professor of modern Irish history at University College Dublin. “The very idea of ​​leading a government in Northern Ireland once there would have been abhorrent.”

Across the UK, Friday’s local election results presented a number of setbacks for Prime Minister Boris Johnson in what was widely seen as a test of the damage to him and his Conservative party from a whirlwind scandal over lockdown-breaking parties in Downing. street.

But it was in Northern Ireland where the results had the most profound potential for change.

Sinn Fein’s victory has deeply upset union members, who have refused to say they will participate in a government with a Sinn Fein prime minister. That could lead to a collapse of the Northern Ireland parliament, known as Stormont, and paralysis of the government. Some even fear a flare-up in the violence between Catholics and Protestants that ended the peace deal after the 30-year guerrilla war known as the Troubles.

Sinn Fein made his electoral gains with a campaign that emphasized kitchen-table issues such as the rising cost of living and health care, and undermined his overall commitment to uniting Northern and Southern Ireland – a vestige of his ties to the Irish Republican. Army.

The shift will push the Democratic Unionist Party, which promotes Northern Ireland’s current status as part of the United Kingdom, to second place for the first time since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, which created the system under which unionists and nationalists share power.

One of the other likely big winners in the election was the Alliance, a centrist party that does not align itself with the nationalists or the unionists. Analysts said the party’s candidates had drawn votes away from “soft unionists,” suggesting that past sectarian conflicts have less resonance, especially among younger voters, than everyday concerns such as housing, jobs and health care.

“A large number of voters in Northern Ireland say they are not nationalists or trade unionists,” said Katy Hayward, a professor of politics at Queen’s University in Belfast. “Now there seems to be momentum behind that vision.”

“The main point Sinn Fein makes is, ‘We want to be in government,'” said Professor Hayward. “That is applauded by people who are fed up with the dysfunction of the government.”

In so-called first-preference votes, reported Friday night, Sinn Fein won 250,388 votes, the Democratic Unionist Party won 184,002 and the Alliance won 116,681. Under the area’s complicated voting system, candidates with the highest number of votes automatically win seats in the assembly.

But voters can express additional preferences and the seats are allocated based on the parties’ share of votes. That means that the final number of seats won by Sinn Fein and other parties will not be known until Saturday.

For all the symbolism, the victory was as much about disorder in the trade union movement as it was about the rise of the nationalists. Unionists have been divided and demoralized since Brexit, largely because the Democratic Unionist Party signed the UK government’s negotiations on a hybrid trade status for Northern Ireland, known as the Protocol.

The scheme, which imposes border controls on goods flowing from mainland Britain to Northern Ireland, has sparked backlash among union voters, many of whom complain it drives a wedge between them and the rest of the UK. The British government, eager to appease union members, is considering legislation that would throw out parts of the trade protocol. But it has yet to occur.

Such a move would increase tensions with the European Union and possibly even lead to a trade war. It would also antagonize the United States, which has warned Britain not to take steps that could jeopardize the Good Friday Agreement — a pact negotiated under the auspices of the Clinton administration.

President Biden, who often talks about his Irish roots and is staunchly against Brexit, has raised Northern Ireland’s status in meetings with Mr Johnson. He has also asked his staff to reiterate his concerns about the matter to British officials.

While union members point to trade protocol as the source of their problems, analysts said Brexit, which was opposed by a majority of voters in Northern Ireland, was the cause of division within the movement.

“It is Brexit that is casting a shadow over Northern Ireland,” said Bobby McDonagh, a former Irish ambassador to Britain. “It is not the protocol, which is actually an attempt to solve the problems caused by Brexit.”

An aggressive new push for Irish unity could also threaten the peace. Sinn Fein officials are downplaying that prospect, noting that it is up to the British government to decide whether to organize a referendum asking the people of Northern Ireland whether they want to stay in the UK or unite with the Republic Ireland.

A majority of people in the South should also vote for unity, something that experts say will take years. Sinn Fein has also increased its support in the Republic of Ireland, with a similar appeal to voters on bread-and-butter issues such as house prices. It is now Ireland’s main opposition party and has a chance to sit in government after elections scheduled for 2025.

“Sinn Fein is now in the unique position – of being an all-Irish party,” said Professor Ferriter. “But if it is to be successful, it must boost that effort, as its fundamental goal remains Irish unity.”

Despite its evolution into a mainstream party, analysts say Sinn Fein still bears traces of its militant roots. It remains highly centralized, with little of the internal debate or disagreement that characterizes other parties.

In the United States, where many in the Irish diaspora are embracing the nationalist cause, before St. Patrick’s Day, the party’s supporters ran ads in bohobarmadrid and other newspapers promising “Irish unity in our time.”

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