Ever since Northern Ireland was founded as a majority Protestant state a century ago, its governments have been run by unionist politicians who defined themselves as British.
But if the opinion polls are correct, Thursday’s election will see Sinn Fein, an Irish nationalist party seeking union with Ireland, become the largest group in the 90-seat Northern Ireland Assembly. That would give Sinn Fein the job of prime minister in the Belfast government for the first time.
It would be a milestone for a party long linked to the Irish Republican Army, a paramilitary group that used bombs and bullets to try to remove Northern Ireland from British rule during decades of violence. And it would bring Sinn Fein’s ultimate goal of a united Ireland one step closer.
But it’s not what the party — or voters — want to talk about in a campaign that has been dominated by more immediate concerns: long waiting lists for medical care and the skyrocketing cost of food and fuel.
The economic crisis, fueled by the war in Ukraine, the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic and Britain’s departure from the European Union, is also dominating the electoral debate in other parts of the UK. Thursday’s votes for local authorities in England, Scotland and Wales are a test for embattled British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, whose popularity has been hit by scandals over breaches of confinement rules.
In Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein has downplayed talk of a united Ireland in its campaign to focus on basic issues.
“The things the public want us to respond to is trying to put money in their pockets to help them deal with the cost of living crisis,” said Michelle O’Neill, leader of the Northern Ireland party, during a televised election. . discussion on Tuesday. She said that she was not “set on a date” for a unity referendum.
Many voters simply hope that elections will produce a functioning government.but that seems unlikely in the short term.
Under Northern Ireland’s power-sharing system, created by the 1998 peace deal that ended decades of Catholic-Protestant conflict, the posts of First Minister and Deputy Prime Minister are divided between the largest Unionist party and the largest Nationalist party. .
Both positions must be filled for a government to function. The Democratic Unionist Party, which has been the largest in the Northern Ireland Assembly for two decades, has suggested it might not serve under a Sinn Fein prime minister.
The DUP also says it will refuse to join a new government unless there are major changes to the border arrangements after Brexit, known as the Northern Ireland Protocol, which many unionists oppose.
“Political institutions must be sustainable”DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson said during Tuesday’s debate. “And that means we have to deal with the big issues that are in front of us, most notably the damage that the Northern Ireland Protocol is doing to undermine political stability in Northern Ireland.”
Post-Brexit rules imposed controls customs Y border to some products entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the United Kingdom. The deal was designed to maintain an open border between Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland, a key pillar of the peace process.
But unionists say the new controls have created a barrier between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK that undermines its British identity.
Instability has led to increased tensions and sporadic violence, including a week of rioting in Protestant loyalist areas a year ago. Last month, police were thrown with Molotov cocktails after a parade by Irish Republican dissidents in Derry, also known as Londonderry.
The British government is putting pressure on the EU to accept major changes (remove most customs controls) and threatens to unilaterally stop enforcing the rules if the bloc refuses.
Negotiations have reached an impasse, with the bloc accusing Johnson of refusing to enforce the rules he agreed to in a legally binding treaty.
Meanwhile, politics in Northern Ireland is changing. More support goes to parties that identify as neither nationalist nor unionist, and young people increasingly reject traditional labels. Polls suggest the centrist Alliance Party is vying for second place with the DUP, another potentially seismic development.
Full results of the election, which uses a proportional representation system, are not expected until the weekend at the earliest.
The new legislators will meet next week to try to form an executive. If none can be formed within six months, the administration will collapse, leading to a new election and more uncertainty.
(with information from AP)
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