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Sinn Féin wins most votes in Northern Ireland Assembly

Sinn Féin is set to become the largest party in the Northern Ireland Assembly for the first time after a historic vote.

Why it matters: It’s the first time that a party whose goal is to see a reunified Ireland has seen the largest number of seats at the Stormont assembly since Northern Ireland came into existence 101 years ago, the BBC notes.

  • Sinn Féin, the former political wing of the Irish Republican Army that strongly advocates for the reunification of Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland, will now be allowed to appoint a first minister in the legislative body.
  • The vote doesn’t change Northern Ireland’s status in the United Kingdom, as leaving and reunifying with Ireland would have to be approved via a constitutional referendum. But it marks a historic shift away from unionist and loyalist political sentiments and toward either nationalist or neutral attitudes.

By the numbers: With almost all votes counted, Sinn Féin has so far won 27 of the assembly’s 90 seats.

  • The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the unionist and loyalist political party that’s dominated Northern Ireland politics for decades, has won 24, a loss of three since the last election.
  • It has suggested it may not participate in a government under a Sinn Féin first minister, though its participation is needed for the assembly to function, as required by the body’s complicated nationalist and unionist power-sharing agreements.
  • The Alliance Party of Northern Ireland, a liberal and centrist party that does not identify as either nationalist or unionist, has won 17 seats, a pickup of nine.

What they’re saying: Michelle O’Neill, Sinn Féin’s vice-president who is set to become Northern Ireland’s first nationalist first minister, said Saturday that there should now be an “honest debate” around the party’s goal of reunification after the vote results, according to Reuters.

The big picture: While one of Sinn Féin’s goals is reunification, the party largely kept that out of the spotlight while campaigning this year and instead focused on more immediate concerns, like health services and the rising costs of living, according to AP.

  • Throughout the campaign, the DUP was heavily criticized for its handling of Brexit, namely trade and border arrangements between Northern Ireland and the U.K.

The Northern Ireland Assembly was formally founded in 1998 in accordance with the Good Friday Agreement, which largely ended the violence between nationalists and unionists in the country from 1968 to 1998 — a period known as “The Troubles.”

  • Northern Ireland had a parliament after it was formed as a Protestant-majority state in the U.K. in 1921, though that body was abolished by the U.K. government in 1973 in response to The Troubles and was replaced by direct rule from Westminster until 1998.

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