'The people have spoken,' said Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland Michelle O'Neill (centre L)

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‘The people have spoken,’ said Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland Michelle O’Neill (centre L) – Copyright AFP NELSON ALMEIDA

Jitendra JOSHI with Callum PATON in Magherafelt

Sinn Fein leader Michelle O’Neill on Saturday acclaimed a “new era” for Northern Ireland as her Irish nationalist party handed a historic election defeat to pro-UK unionists who had monopolised power for decades.

Once the political wing of the paramilitary IRA, Sinn Fein won enough seats in the devolved legislature to nominate O’Neill as first minister — a century after Northern Ireland was carved out as a Protestant fiefdom under British rule.

O’Neill appealed for a “healthy debate” about reunifying Ireland, but the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) stood by its refusal to form a new power-sharing government, opening up the prospect of months-long political limbo.

“Today ushers in a new era,” said O’Neill, who at 45 came of political age after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement ended three decades of bloodshed in Northern Ireland.

“It’s a defining moment for our politics and our people,” she added.

“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.” 

With 88 of 90 seats filled from Thursday’s proportional voting, Sinn Fein was assured of 27 seats in the Stormont assembly, ahead of the DUP and the cross-community Alliance party.

“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, ahead of the debate about Irish unity.

The DUP occupied the role of first minister in the outgoing assembly, before it collapsed the executive in protest at post-Brexit trading rules between the UK and EU.

– ‘Long shadow’ –

DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson demanded that UK 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 government can only form under the 1998 deal if the DUP agrees to take part and serve in the role of deputy first minister.

“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 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 so long by sectarian unrest.

The other big winner in Northern Ireland was Alliance, which said its strong showing in third place underlined the need for Northern Ireland to move past old divisions.

“I think given all the challenges that we face, if we squander this opportunity people will not forgive us, so we need to get in there,” Alliance leader Naomi Long said.

– ‘Angry unionism’ –

The leader of the once-dominant Ulster Unionist Party, which struggled in the election, said many voters were tired of “angry negative unionism”.

“It may take a while to change that psyche,” UUP chief Doug 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 was “extraordinary and highly significant to have a nationalist party holding the most seats in the assembly”.

Any referendum on Irish reunification was some way off, she said, but Ireland’s Foreign Minister Simon Coveney should also come to Belfast 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. 

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