BELFAST – Northern Ireland’s voters have chosen an Irish republican to lead the U.K. region’s power-sharing government for the first time – a historic verdict that faces almost certain obstruction from British unionists.
Sinn Féin, long the second-largest party in the Northern Ireland Assembly, looks on course to retain all 27 of its current seats in the 90-member chamber with a record-high vote.
The rival Democratic Unionists, who have led every power-sharing government in Belfast since 2007, suffered significant losses in Thursday’s election that will consign it to a painful second-place finish.
The election was not only a battle to form the next regional government but also the first time voters had the opportunity to express their verdict on Northern Ireland’s unique trading arrangements, put in place after the U.K. left the European Union.
The DUP vowed to block Sinn Féin from leading a power-sharing government unless the U.K. government first suspended EU-required checks on British goods arriving at Northern Irish ports, an act that could trigger trade retaliation from the EU.
Since Brexit, Northern Ireland has stayed in the EU’s single market for goods, a move designed to avoid a politically problematic land border with the neighboring Republic of Ireland. With the rest of the U.K. fully out of the EU, checks are now required on British goods arriving in Northern Ireland. Unionists vehemently oppose this because they see it as driving an economic wedge between Britain and Northern Ireland, which is traditionally dependent on British imports.
The U.K. is pushing the EU to renegotiate the so-called protocol, even mulling legislation that would allow London to disregard parts of it.
With final results yet to come Saturday that will confirm the Democratic Unionist Party’s exact seat deficit to Sinn Féin, DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson ruled out any quick revival of power-sharing with Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill as leader.
The newly elected assembly is supposed to convene next week to elect O’Neill as first minister and the DUP’s nominee as deputy first minister. It would be the first time since Ireland’s partition a century ago that the British north is led by a politician committed to ending its union with Britain.
But Donaldson – who received 12,626 votes in his Lagan Valley constituency, the best personal performance among the election’s nearly 240 assembly candidates, followed by O’Neill’s 10,845 in her Mid Ulster base – said his party wouldn’t agree to fill either top post in the Northern Ireland Executive, the cross-community government at the heart of the territory’s 1998 peace accord.
The top party lays automatic claim to the first minister’s post, while the biggest party from the other side of the community must settle for deputy first minister, the office previously held by O’Neill, Sinn Féin’s leader in Northern Ireland since 2017. Both posts must be filled as a joint ticket agreed by Sinn Féin and the DUP; either side can block government formation.
“We need to see the United Kingdom government take decisive action on the protocol. Words are not enough,” Donaldson told reporters at a count center north of Belfast. “We need the long shadow of the protocol removed from the political institutions in Northern Ireland. It is creating untold harm to Northern Ireland. The EU need to hear that message loud and clear.”
Democratic Unionist candidates lost support in predominantly Protestant districts to an even harder-line upstart, Traditional Unionist Voice, which is led by Jim Allister, a former DUP member of European Parliament. He left the DUP 15 years ago when it agreed to cooperate in government with what it calls the “unrepentant terrorists” of Sinn Féin — and until now has been the only elected TUV assembly member.
While no TUV candidates were confirmed as winners Friday, several won more votes than DUP candidates. This ensured in some cases that those lower-ranked DUP politicians would be declared losers once Northern Ireland’s multi-round ballot count is complete.
Under the election’s complex proportional representation rules, voters rank candidates in order of preference. Ballots must be counted and recalculated several times. In each round, the least popular surviving candidates are eliminated and their votes are transferred to other politicians still in the running.
Donaldson said the TUV, not Sinn Féin, was the reason his party had lost crucial ground.
“A divided unionism doesn’t win elections,” he said.
The other big winner emerging from Friday’s partial results is the cross-community Alliance Party, which potentially could double its current eight seats at Stormont and become the third-largest party.
Alliance leader Naomi Long, the incumbent justice minister in Northern Ireland’s outgoing five-party government, said she was willing to serve in a potential new three-party coalition alongside Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionists. But she said the incessant headbutting between those two polarized parties must end for power-sharing to work.
“We’ve heard since 1998 that this place is all about managing division,” she said, referring to the year of the Good Friday peace accord that envisioned a lasting partnership between the British Protestant and Irish Catholic blocs. Those rules discriminate against middle-ground parties like Alliance that won’t legally define itself as nationalist “green” or unionist “orange.”
“We want to move beyond that,” said Long, who topped the poll in east Belfast to retain her own assembly seat. “We want to reconcile our community and create a united community, not one that is divided constantly along orange and green lines.”
Alliance’s gains came largely at the expense of other compromise-minded parties: the Ulster Unionists (UUP) and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), Sinn Féin’s moderate rival for Irish nationalist votes. Surging support for Alliance appeared likely to knock out the assembly’s only two Green Party members, too.
But an unprecedented number of nationalists, who now outnumber unionists among younger voters, opted for Sinn Féin. SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said he understood why.
“Nationalists wanted to send a message to the DUP,” said Eastwood, who retained his own seat in the SDLP’s traditional power base of Derry, Northern Ireland’s second-largest city.
“When Jeffrey Donaldson refused to say whether he would nominate a deputy first minister if a nationalist got the top post, that was a real affront to democracy,” he said. “It fueled a mood within nationalism to make sure that a nationalist was ‘allowed’ to be first minister. Even saying that out loud must infuriate people. So I totally understand the mood that has led to this huge Sinn Féin vote.”
Sinn Féin won 29 percent of first-preference votes, up 1.1 percent from 2017 and an historic high; the DUP 21.3 percent, down 6.7 percent and its worst performance since 1998; Alliance 13.5 percent, up 4.5 percent; UUP 11.2 percent, down 1.7 percent; SDLP 9.1 percent, down 2.9 percent; TUV 7.6 percent, up 5.1 percent; and Greens 1.9 percent, down 0.4 percent.
Of confirmed wins on Friday evening, Sinn Féin had secured 16 seats; Alliance and the DUP four each; the UUP three, and the SDLP one. Counting was expected to run past midnight and resume in some districts Saturday morning.