High Northern Ireland turnout 'set to benefit Sinn Fein'

High turnout ‘set to benefit Sinn Fein’ with the republican party tipped to knock unionists into second place in Northern Ireland elections for the first time

  • Sinn Fein favourites to become the largest party in the power-sharing executive 
  • But the DUP and other unionist parties have yet to commit to working with them
  • Northern Ireland Secretary told the parties of the need for them to work together

Northern Ireland is bracing itself for more political turmoil after a high election turn out increased the chances of Sinn Fein winning for the first time. 

The hardline republicans – who want a united Ireland – are favourites to become the largest party in the power-sharing executive for the first time in its history, overtaking the Democratic Unionist Party.

Victory for a party wanting Northern Ireland to leave the United Kingdom would mark an historic shift 24 years after the Good Friday agreement that ended three decades of sectarian bloodshed between those seeking unity with neighbouring Ireland and those wanting to remain part of the United Kingdom.

Support for Sinn Fein stood at an average of 25 per cent across the final campaign polls, giving the former political wing of the Irish Republican Army a six-point lead over its nearest rival.

Turnout was as high as 60 per cent in some areas an hour before polls closed at 9pm last night, the Electoral Office for Northern Ireland estimated. Counting begins early on Friday with results expected later in the day.

Sinn Fein benefited from a jump in turnout to 65 per cent five years ago when it closed the gap to the DUP to just one seat.

‘This time everyone’s voting Sinn Fein,’ Seamus McCann said in Coalisland, County Tyrone after voting for Michelle O’Neill, the party’s leader in the region. O’Neill called on supporters ‘to seize a truly historic moment.’

The DUP and other unionist parties have yet to commit to working with Sinn Fein if it wins, and O’Neill becomes First Minister. 

The DUP and other unionist parties have yet to commit to working with Sinn Fein if it wins, and its NI leader Michelle O’Neill (left, today) becomes First Minister.

A shock poll this week raised the prospect of the DUP (leader Jeffrey Donaldson pictured) slipping into third place in Northern Ireland elections.

The Institute of Irish Studies/University of Liverpool/Irish News research put Sinn Fein well ahead of the DUP

No new Brexit law scrapping Northern Ireland protocol in the Queen’s Speech  

Ministers have stepped back from triggering a new crisis over Northern Ireland by omitting a new law scrapping a key part of the Brexit agreement with the EU from the Queen’s Speech next week.

Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis last night signalled that legislation overriding the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP) will not be included in the parliamentary business unveiled by the monarch on Tuesday.

Ministers have threatened to bring in a new law allowing it to waive part of the protocol, which kept Ulster within Brussels’ sphere of influence and enflamed sectarian tensions. 

The power-sharing Stormont  executive imploded in February when the DUP withdrew its first minister Paul Givan, in protest at the protocol. 

It has enraged unionists by creating economic barriers between the region and the rest of the UK.  

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has urged the Government to act on unionists’ concerns around the post-Brexit trading arrangements, criticising them as harmful to the union and calling for Northern Ireland’s position in the UK internal market to be protected.

But speaking on ITV’s Peston last night, Mr Lewis said: ‘Our focus is on resolving the issues with the protocol, ideally we want to do that by agreement with the European Union,’ he said.

Pressed on whether an announcement would come next week, he said: ‘No, Robert, we’ve not said that.’ 

 Boris Johnson is set to give talks with the European Union over Northern Ireland ‘one last chance’ before introducing legislation that will allow him to override the controversial protocol governing post-Brexit trade, The Times reported.

The Prime Minister has sent Northern Ireland minister Conor Burns to Washington in an attempt to explain the government’s new strategy that would give ministers the power to unilaterally suspend part of the agreement that was signed by Johnson in 2019, the report said.

 

The main nationalist and unionist rivals are obliged to share power under the terms of the 1998 peace deal. But the DUP has said it will no longer do so unless the protocol governing Northern Ireland’s trade with the rest of the UK following its exit from the European Union is totally overhauled.

Britain and the EU have spent months trying to agree on how to remove many of the checks on goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK, imposed under the protocol to avoid fraying the EU single market via the open border with Ireland.

But London has also threatened to stoke tensions with Brussels by unilaterally overruling parts of the agreement.

Anger in pro-British communities that the protocol erodes their place in the UK looks set to fracture the unionist vote, with the much smaller and more hardline Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) poised to take some support from the DUP.

It could as well benefit the cross-community Alliance Party, which could score a major breakthrough.

The outcome is also likely to reaffirm that a majority of lawmakers – including Sinn Fein – in the regional assembly favour retaining the protocol. A majority in Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU in Britain’s 2016 Brexit referendum that yielded a narrow countrywide majority in favour of leave.

Katy Hayward, professor of political sociology at Queen’s University Belfast who has written about the protocol, said the election was a ‘critical moment’, echoing comments from the Irish foreign minister that Northern Ireland’s political institutions were under more threat than at any time in 24 bumpy years.

‘What happens after the election is a real test of the commitment of the British government and unionists (to) the accommodation made in the Good Friday Agreement,’ Hayward said.

‘How would the British government respond to Sinn Fein becoming the largest party? Will it do so by being careful to uphold the letter and the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement, or will it do so with a focus on the protocol? That would say a lot about the prospects for stability here.’

Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis yesterday revealed he had told the parties of the need for them to work together to restore fully functioning devolved government after the election.

‘It is vital that we give people the space to vote in an atmosphere of tolerance and respect,’ he said.

‘I have conveyed to the parties the need for them to work together to restore fully functioning devolved institutions as soon as they can, when the count is complete.’

A shock poll this week raised the prospect of the DUP slipping into third place in Northern Ireland elections.   

The latest survey on Tuesday found the unionists and the Alliance Party are level behind Sinn Fein ahead of the crunch vote in Thursday.

The republicans remains on course to emerge as the largest force after the ballot for the first time – although their support has dipped from 27 per cent to 26.6 per cent.

But the Institute of Irish Studies/University of Liverpool/Irish News research still put them well ahead of the DUP on 18.2 per cent, down from 20.2 per cent.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson’s party was in danger of being overhauled by the non-aligned Alliance, headed by Naomi Long, after it surged from 14.6 per cent.

The poll conducted by Social Market Research Belfast has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points. 

The Assembly election uses the single transferable vote system of proportional representation, which gives voters the opportunity to rank other parties in order of preference after selecting their first choice. 

But if the findings are borne out this week Sinn Fein would displace the DUP as Northern Ireland’s largest party – a position it has occupied for almost 20 years.

A unionist party has always been the biggest in the Assembly, and previously the Stormont Parliament, since the formation of the state in 1921.

While the office of the first and deputy first minister is an equal one with joint power, the allocation of the titles is regarded as symbolically important.  

Ms O’Neill, the Sinn Fein, vice president, cast her ballot in her home village of Clonoe, Co Tyrone, accompanied by party colleague Linda Dillon.

Thirty miles away, DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson cast his vote at Dromore Central primary school in Co Down.

The Northern Ireland Protocol has cast a long shadow over the election campaign following the resignation of DUP First Minister Paul Givan in February in an effort to force the UK government to act over the post-Brexit trading arrangements.

This action left the Executive unable to fully function. While ministers remained in post, they were restricted in the actions they could take.

Five Assembly seats are up for grabs in 18 constituencies, with the overall number of MLAs returned 90. A total of 239 candidates are running.

Counting will start at three centres in Belfast, Jordanstown and Magherafelt on Friday morning with the first results expected later in the day.

The DUP won 28 seats at the last Assembly elections in 2017, just ahead of Sinn Fein which returned 27 MLAs.

Next was the SDLP with 12 seats, the Ulster Unionist Party with 10 seats, Alliance with eight seats, the Green Party with two seats while People Before Profit and the TUV had one MLA each.

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