Sinn Féin, the former Irish Republican Army party, made record gains in Northern Ireland local elections this weekend, made possible by growing voter frustration with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) bloc opposing a power sharing government in Stormont for more than a year.
Belfast’s semi-autonomous government has been suspended since the DUP came out to protest a post-Brexit customs border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.
With the count completed on Saturday, Sinn Féin, which seeks unification of Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland, took 144 of the 462 local government seats, an increase of 39 since the last local government election. in 2019. Its main rival, the DUP, which wants Northern Ireland to remain a part of the UK, won 122 seats, while the centrist Alliance Party had 67.
Sinn Féin became the largest party for the first time after last year’s May 2022 assembly elections, beating the DUP, which had dominated the legislature for two decades.
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Sinn Féin Vice-President Michelle O’Neill, who was due to become prime minister following last year’s historic assembly elections, called the local election victories “significant”.
“It is now up to the British and Irish governments to come together and focus their efforts on the immediate restoration of the executive and assembly,” he said, according to Sky News. “As long as the DUP is out of the executive and the assembly and public services are suffering, the public is suffering from austerity, from cuts coming straight from London.”
Social Democrat and Labor leader Colum Eastwood, whose party was one of the architects of the Good Friday Agreement 25 years ago, attributed the heavy losses in the recent election to more moderate voters’ growing frustration with the DUP-induced deadlock.
“They are very annoyed that Michelle O’Neill hasn’t been able to become prime minister,” Eastwood said, according to Politico. “They want politicians to get back to work and address the issues plaguing our community. Now it’s up to the DUP to move forward.”
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After the election results were finalized, DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson admitted that ‘there are lessons to be learned for trade unionism in its broadest sense’, according to Sky News. “The DUP had good elections, but trade unionism has to do better, we have to win more seats.”
Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK that shares a border with an EU member – the Republic of Ireland.
That border is particularly sensitive due to the history of sectarian violence on the island of Ireland, and Britain and the EU have agreed to keep the border free of customs and other checks to honor Northern Ireland’s peace process . Instead, there were controls on some goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK
This has angered the DUP, which has argued that the new trade deals undermine Northern Ireland’s place in the UK In February, the UK and the European Union agreed on a deal to overcome the political crisis. The so-called Windsor Framework aimed to ease customs controls and other barriers for goods moving to Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK
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The UK and the EU hailed their deal as a turning point in their often contentious relationship. The deal also gives Northern Ireland politicians a mechanism, known as the Stormont Brake, to challenge new EU trade rules that may apply, a key demand from trade unionists. However, the DUP rejected the deal, refusing to take part in the power-sharing government.
“Jeffrey Donaldson has become the greatest possible recruiting sergeant for Republicans. The longer Michelle O’Neill is blocked from becoming prime minister, the more voters are thrust into the arms of her party,” wrote Suzanne Breen, political editor for the Belfast Telegraph.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.