BELFAST, Northern Ireland ( Associated Press) — Ever since Northern Ireland was established a century ago as a Protestant-majority state, its governments have been led by federalist politicians who have defined themselves as British .
But if opinion polls are correct, Sinn Féin, the Irish nationalist party seeking a union with Ireland in Thursday’s election, will become the largest group in the 90-seat Northern Ireland Assembly. This would give Sinn Féin the position of First Minister in the Belfast government for the first time.
It would be a milestone for a party long affiliated with the Irish Republican Army, a paramilitary group that used bombs and bullets to try to oust Northern Ireland from British rule during decades of violence – including British The army and the Royal Ulster Constabulary, as well as Protestant loyalist paramilitary forces, were also strongly involved.
This would bring Sinn Féin one step closer to United Ireland’s ultimate goal.
But that’s not what the party – or voters – want to talk about in a campaign dominated by more immediate concerns: long waiting lists for medical care and rising food and fuel costs.
“I now ration my heat for an hour a day,” said Sinead Quinn, who founded the Dairy Against Food Poverty group to pressure politicians to act on the cost of living crisis.
“My whole group of friends is affected by this. I don’t think you can throw stones in Northern Ireland and miss the community it affected.
The economic crisis – spurred by the war in Ukraine, the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic and Britain’s exit from the European Union – also dominates the election debate elsewhere in Britain, with local officials in England, Scotland and Wales set to elect on Thursday The vote is a test for the troubled. British Prime Minister Boris JohnsonWhose popularity has been battered by scams for breaking lockdown rules,
In Northern Ireland, Sinn Féin has reduced talk of a united Ireland in its campaign to focus on issues of bread and butter.
The leader of the party in Northern Ireland, Michelle O’Neill, said during a televised Tuesday: “The things the public wants us to answer are trying to put money in their pockets to help them deal with the crisis they are in. So to receive.” Election debate. She said she had not been “fixed on a date” for the unification referendum.
Still, Katie Hayward, professor of political sociology at Queen’s University Belfast, said Sinn Féin taking the top spot would be a “very important” moment.
“And we know that nationalists consider it so, even though they don’t want an imminent border election,” she said. “And of course the federalists will also see this as an important, pivotal moment.”
“What the election result will mean is a lot about how other parties react to this scenario.”
Many voters only hope that the election will produce a functioning government, but this seems unlikely in the short term.
Under Northern Ireland’s power-sharing system, created by the 1998 peace agreement that ended decades of Catholic-Protestant conflict, the jobs of First Minister and Deputy First Minister were split between the largest Unionist party and the largest Nationalist party. Huh.
Both positions must be filled for the government to function. The Democratic Unionist Party, which has been the largest in the Northern Ireland Assembly for two decades, has suggested that it may not function under Sinn Féin’s first minister.
The DUP also says it will refuse to join a new government unless there are major changes to the post-Brexit border system, known as the Northern Ireland Protocol, which has been opposed by many federalists. goes.
“Political institutions must be sustainable.” DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson said during Tuesday’s debate. “And that means we have to deal with the bigger issues that lie before us, not least the damage that the Northern Ireland Protocol is doing to undermine political stability in Northern Ireland.”
Post-Brexit regulations have imposed customs and border checks on some goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK.
But federalists say the new checks have created a barrier between Northern Ireland and the rest of Britain that undermines their British identity.
The instability has led to rising tensions and sporadic violence, including a week of riots in Protestant loyalist areas a year ago. Last month, petrol bombs were hurled at police after a parade of disgruntled Irish Republicans in Derry, also known as Londonderry.
The British government is pressuring the EU to agree to major changes – eliminating most checks – and threatening to unilaterally suspend rules if the bloc refuses.
Negotiations have reached an impasse, with Block accusing Johnson of refusing to implement the rules he had agreed to in a legally binding treaty.
Meanwhile, politics is changing in Northern Ireland. Finding more support for parties that identify as neither nationalist nor federalist, young people increasingly reject the traditional label. Polls show that the centrist Alliance party is vying for second place with the DUP, another possible seismic development.
Full results of the election, which use a system of proportional representation, are not expected until the weekend at the earliest.
The new MLAs will try to form an executive by meeting next week. If none can be made within six months, the administration will collapse, a new election and more uncertainty will begin.
Quinn, an anti-poverty activist, said it would be an “insult of duty”.
“Both communities – all communities and none – are struggling here,” she said.
“I’m really hoping politicians are listening.”
Jill Lawless reported from London