Sinn Féin wins the elections but will not govern Northern Ireland

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Michelle O’Neill (left) and Sinn Féin leader Mary Louise McDonald celebrate the results of the Northern Ireland election on Saturday. /REUTERS

The heirs of the IRA confirm its effectiveness but unionism will boycott autonomy to force changes in the borders with Great Britain required by the EU

Sinn Féin, historically associated with the IRA terrorist group, is the most voted party in the elections for the Belfast Assembly, where it will have the largest number of deputies, 27, in a Parliament with 90 seats. Republicans get their all-time high of first-preference votes, 250,338, a slight percentage increase, and the right to nominate Michelle O’Neill as the province’s Chief Minister.

Never since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 has a nationalist politician of Catholic culture held that position. From its creation in 1921 as a British nation broken off from southern Ireland, until 1972, when the autonomous government was dissolved due to its inability to maintain public order and the province became governed from London, all the prime ministers were Protestant unionists.

The peace agreement, backed by referendums in the north and south of Ireland, established a regional executive shared by unionists and nationalists. The Chief Minister and the Deputy Chief Minister, appointed by the second force, have the same rank and make their decisions by consensus. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) loses symbolic leadership for the first time since 2007, and will be second with 25 seats.

The result of the elections also has symbolic features, because the leader of the DUP, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, has no intention of running as Deputy Chief Minister and that decision would annul the structure of two leaders representing two communities. It would leave the Autonomous Assembly and its Executive with limited powers. They have been operating under these circumstances since Donaldson ordered Peter Givan to resign as Chief Minister in February.

The leader of the DUP affirmed on Wednesday in an interview with the Press Association agency that he was willing to guide his party in shared autonomy, being convinced that the Government of London will announce “decisive actions” in the coming days to change the controls border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. They are stipulated in the Protocol on Ireland, an annex to the Withdrawal Agreement of the European Union that regulates Brexit.

The DUP, the only significant party that voted in favor of Brexit in the region, affirms, like other unionists, that the establishment of barriers to the movement of goods with the rest of the United Kingdom does not respect British constitutional laws or the consensus between the two communities dictated by the Good Friday Agreement. The controls have caused an increase in trade between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, which from the unionist perspective favors the, for them undesirable, political unity of the island.

The minister for Northern Ireland in the British Government, Brandon Lewis, weakened Jefferson on the same Wednesday night, stating that Boris Johnson’s Cabinet will not include in its legislative program, which will be announced on Tuesday, a bill to repeal unilaterally parties to the Protocol. Fragments of its content have been leaked in recent weeks. Lewis’s words on the eve of the vote caused a stir among unionists.

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The surprising intervention of the minister perhaps affected the intention to vote, which has registered the largest percentage increase in first preferences for the Traditional Voice of Unionism (TUV), a radical group that demands the repeal of the Protocol and rejects the Good Friday Agreement. His share of the vote has grown at the expense of the DUP, but lawyer Jim Alister’s party has not translated the vote into seats and he will remain their only MP.

James Forsyth, a journalist with good sources at the weekly ‘The Spectator’, of which Boris Johnson was director, affirms that the prime minister will include in the legislative program a declaration of the will of his Government to protect the integrity of the Good Friday Agreement, which promotes cooperative relationships between communities and between Belfast, Dublin and London. Forsyth interprets it as a new warning to Brussels that Johnson is willing to legislate in order to change the Protocol.

Donaldson announced to the BBC, after his loose election as a Member of the Assembly in the Lagan Valley constituency, that he will meet Lewis next week. He refused to confirm that he will resign from his seat in London in the coming days. Keeping it would prevent him from serving as both MP and Deputy Chief Minister in Belfast. The viability of a regional Executive will be decided in the British capital and in Brussels.

Sinn Féin’s victory may be symbolic, because the restoration of shared autonomy is unlikely in the next six months, the deadline that the law establishes before the British minister is obliged to call new elections. But it is remarkable that a party with complicit leaders or perpetrators of multiple IRA crimes has been transformed in the peace process into a governing force. He has added SDLP voters to these elections, moderate nationalists perhaps attracted by the idea of ​​occupying the post of Chief Minister.

The Alliance (AP), a liberal party that in the Assembly registry does not declare itself unionist or nationalist, but ‘other’, has almost doubled its number of seats, 17, thanks to secondary preferences. The victory of the republicans encourages the idea that the unity of Ireland is closer. It arrives on the eve of the publication this month of the results of the 2021 census. It will then be known if the majority that in 2011 identified as British has been altered.

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