“It’s a defining moment for our politics and our people,” O’Neill said before full results were announced. “I will provide leadership which is inclusive, which celebrates diversity, which guarantees rights and equality for those who have been excluded, discriminated against or ignored in the past.”
Tallies from Thursday’s complex proportional voting showed Sinn Fein, the former political wing of the IRA paramilitary group, had secured at least 23 seats for the 90-seat legislature, setting it on course for victory. Sinn Fein will have enough seats to make O’Neill first minister, a century after Northern Ireland was carved out as a protestant fiefdom under British rule.
“The people have spoken and our job is now to turn up. I expect others to turn up also,” O’Neill told reporters, stressing the new government must tackle foremost a cost-of-living crisis in the UK. But she said a “healthy conversation is already underway” about Irish reunification, and the party is targeting a referendum in the next five years.
Democratic Unionist Party leader Jeffrey Donaldson conceded that his nationalist rivals looked set to “emerge as the largest party”, with the DUP winning 21 seats so far. The 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.
Donaldson demanded that Prime Minister Boris Johnson “deliver on his word to honour the commitments he has given and to take the action that is necessary” on the Northern Ireland Protocol. He urged “decisive action by the government to remove the Irish Sea border, because we don’t believe it is acceptable or necessary to have checks on goods moving within the United Kingdom”.
While Sinn Fein will get to nominate a first minister, Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government cannot form unless the DUP agrees to take part. “I want a government in Northern Ireland, but it has to be one based on stable foundations,” Donaldson said. “And the long shadow of the Northern Ireland Protocol is harming our economy, it’s harming political stability.”
Johnson’s Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis was expected to meet the party leaders in Belfast on Monday. The victorious parties will have 24 weeks to resolve their differences or face a new election.
England, Wales and Scotland also voted in local and regional elections on Thursday, punishing embattled Johnson’s scandal-mired Conservatives but without a landslide for the main opposition Labour party. Johnson is expected to lay out his post-election plans in the Queen’s Speech in 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.
The other big winner in Northern Ireland was the cross-community Alliance party, which said its strong showing in third place with at least 15 seats 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 the cost-of-living crisis.
Doug Beattie, leader of the once-dominant Ulster Unionist Party, which struggled in the election, said that many voters were tired of “angry negative unionism”.
“It may take a while to change that psyche,” Beattie told reporters. “It may well be a supertanker that has a large turning circle. But we need to do it.”
Katy Hayward, professor of political sociology at Queen’s University Belfast, said it would be “extraordinary and highly significant to have a nationalist party holding the most seats in the assembly”. She said that any referendum on Irish reunification was some way off, but that Ireland’s Foreign Minister Simon Coveney should also come to Northern Ireland with Lewis on Monday.
“The success of Sinn Fein, if nothing else, underlines the importance of the Irish dimension. There can’t be any solution magicked up by the UK government unilaterally,” Hayward told AFP.