After a historic election victory, Sinn Fein has called for a debate on Irish reunification
Sinn Fein leader in Northern Ireland, Michelle O’Neill, has called for a “honest debate” on Irish reunification, after his party came out of the elections as the largest party in Northern Ireland, a first in the history of the territory under British rule. However, consensus is necessary and may be difficult to achieve.
Sinn Fein won the most seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly elections over the weekend, with 27 seats to 25 for the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). The non-sectarian Alliance Party won 17 seats, while the Ulster Unionist Party won nine and the Social Democratic and Labor Party (SDLP), a small nationalist party, won eight.
The result is Sinn Fein’s best ever performance in Northern Ireland’s 100-year history, and marks the first time an Irish nationalist party has become the territory’s largest assembly.
“Today represents a very important moment of change. This is a watershed moment in our politics and for our people,” O’Neill said Sunday. The nationalist leader added that there should now be a “honest debate” on the unification of Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland to the south, a fundamental tenet of Sinn Fein’s platform.
It can get complicated. Power-sharing laws have been passed in Northern Ireland following the Good Friday Agreement, requiring the two largest parties in the 90-seat assembly to form a government together. The DUP – which represents the territory’s Protestant population and staunchly opposes unification – is unlikely to agree to hold a ballot on the issue.
Furthermore, a so-called border ballot can only be held when it appears that a majority of the population of Northern Ireland wishes to join the Republic. While Sinn Fein is now the largest party in the assembly, a majority of seats are still held by parties representing those who oppose such a ballot or prioritize other issues, as is the case with the Alliance party.
Even setting aside their inherent disagreement on the issue of reunification, Sinn Fein and the DUP must now form a government, with their failure leading to the imposition of direct British rule and new elections. The DUP has pledged to abstain from government unless the UK-EU Brexit deal – which established a tariff barrier between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK – not be deleted or revised.
Formerly the political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), Sinn Fein dominates Catholic areas of Northern Ireland by exploiting an established patronage network and has recently become the most popular party in the Republic of Ireland. also, according to the latest opinion polls. While the party once championed an end to British rule by any means necessary, it has since rebranded itself as the Democratic Socialist Party and embraced burning issues like gays and transgender rights, increased refugee flows and online censorship.
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