Explained: Who are the Sinn Féin, and why their victory in Northern Ireland could mark a historic change in the region’s politics

Voters in Northern Ireland were voting on Thursday (May 5) in an election that could potentially mark a turning point in the region’s history.

Opinion polls ahead of the elections predicted that Sinn Féin would win the majority of seats in the 90-member Northern Ireland Assembly and secure the post of first minister (who is the joint head of the executive along with the deputy first minister). This would mean the Irish nationalist party, which advocates the merger of the British-run Northern Ireland region with the Republic of Ireland, would for the first time be the biggest party in the Northern Ireland house.

Polls were scheduled to close at 2200 BST, or 2.30 am IST on May 6. A total of 239 candidates, including a record 87 women, were contesting in 18 constituencies. Five candidates will be elected in each constituency through proportional representation by a single transferable vote, in which voters rank their chosen candidates in order of preference.

Well over a dozen parties and two dozen Independents are in the fray. Sinn Féin has fielded the largest number of candidates (34), followed by the Democratic Unionist Party (30).

Elsewhere in the United Kingdom, elections were also happening in England, Wales, and Scotland to choose new local councils.

The history of Northern Ireland

In 1921, the firstwhile Government of the United Kingdom and Ireland (which was in existence from 1801 to 1922) partitioned the island of Ireland into two self-governing entities. The Government of Ireland Act 1920 sought to retain both the smaller Northern Ireland region and the larger Southern Ireland within the United Kingdom.

The majority of Southern Ireland citizens rejected the proposal and, in 1922, the Republic of Ireland came into being as an independent nation state with its capital at Dublin. The majority in Northern Ireland — the bulk of whose residents were Protestant and Unionists — however, chose to remain with the United Kingdom.

The region/ territory of Northern Ireland occupies the northeastern corner of the island of Ireland, with borders with the Republic of Ireland to its west and south, and its capital at Belfast.

A substantial group in Northern Ireland, however, were Catholics and Irish nationalists who sought self-governance or independence from the UK. The 20th century will witness cycles of violence between the nationalists and loyalists (also called the Unionists), who were often supported by the forces of Great Britain.

One of the most significant conflicts between the nationalists and Unionists in Northern Ireland is referred to as the “Troubles”, which lasted for around three decades from the late 1960s to 1998. It saw armed conflict, terrorist attacks, and assassinations by rival paramilitary groups. such as the Provisional Irish Republican Army and the Ulster Volunteer Force. The former were Catholics who wanted freedom from British rule; The latter was a Protestant organization opposed to Irish republicanism, and wanted to remain within the UK. More than 3,500 people were killed in the 30-year conflict.

Years of attempts at a peaceful resolution culminated in the Good Friday Agreement of April 10, 1998. It resulted in the formation of a new government where power would be shared between the nationalists and the Unionists. The agreement recognised self-determination for the citizens of Northern Ireland; However, the majority at that time sought to remain with the UK.

Sinn Féin: Its past and present

Sinn Féin (Gaelic for ‘Ourselves Alone’) is an Irish nationalist and democratic socialist party that was founded in 1905 by a writer, newspaper editor, and politician named Arthur Griffith. Through much of the last century, Sinn Féin was widely seen to be the political wing of the Provisional Irish Republican Army.

After the Provincial IRA declared a ceasefire in July 1997, Sinn Féin was included in the multi-party peace talks that resulted in the Good Friday Agreement. Since the 1990s, Sinn Féin has tried distance itself from the IRA by giving up militancy entirely, and emphasising on legal procedures. Since the elections of 2003, Sinn Féin has been the largest nationalist party in Northern Ireland.

The party underwent internal splits during the 1922 Irish Civil War and during the Troubles in 1970. Through the churning, however, the party remained committed to the reunification of Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland. That goal remains unchanged even now.

Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald has declared that “We need to prepare for the future, for a new Ireland, for a united Ireland”, and that “We are living in the end days of partition in Ireland”. Last month, she told European Union diplomats that Europe must prepare for change as Irish reunification has moved “centre stage”. “It (reunification) is being talked about in every town and city in Ireland, not in aspirational tones but as a realistic, achievable and necessary future,” she said, according to a report in The Irish Times.

On April 25, Sinn Féin vice president Michelle O’Neill told Reuters that the government in Dublin must start planning for the possibility of a referendum that could result in a united Ireland. She said she was not “fixated on dates” for the referendum, but people “know constitutional change is coming”, and it was irresponsible of Dublin to “not to be planning at this point”.

Sinn Féin’s campaign for the elections of May 5 has, however, focused more on issues related to the everyday life of people, such as the high costs of and the need for better funded healthcare services. Sinn Féin has also remained firm in its opposition to Brexit.

A potentially historic moment

Since the creation of Northern Ireland, a series of Unionist politicians have led its government. If Sinn Féin emerges victorious, it would mean for the first time in the region’s history a nationalist party would become the largest group in the Assembly and secure the post of first minister.

If Sinn Féin wins in Northern Ireland, and also manages to gain control of the Republic of Ireland after the 2024 elections in that country, it could help achieve the party’s longstanding goal of a unified Ireland.

However, under the Good Friday Agreement, the positions of first minister and first deputy minister are split between the largest Unionist and nationalist — which means that the post parties of deputy first minister will go to the biggest party from the second biggest of the Unionist and nationalist blocs. And since the two offices must work in tandem, significant political collaboration will be needed.

The Democratic Unionist Party has said that it will not serve in a government with a Sinn Féin first minister. The DUP has also stated that it would not join the government unless significant changes were brought to the Northern Ireland Protocol, a post Brexit arrangement which requires border checks on goods passing from mainland Britain to Northern Ireland.

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