Sinn Féin is on course to be the biggest party at Stormont after a symbolic breakthrough for Irish nationalism in Northern Ireland’s assembly election.
The party topped the first preference vote with 29% which will position its deputy leader, Michelle O’Neill, to become the region’s first minister, the first nationalist to hold the position in a historic turnaround and severe blow to unionism.
With transfer votes still being counted on Friday night it was clear the Democratic Unionist party (DUP) had dramatically lost its pre-eminence by slumping to 21.3% in the first preference vote. “A disaster for the DUP,” tweeted Tim Cairns, a former special adviser to the party.
The other big winner from Thursday’s election was the centrist Alliance which emerged to 13.5%, putting it in third place and showing the influence of voters who shun nationalist and unionist labels.
An expected DUP boycott could delay and conceivably derail the formation of a new power-sharing executive unless Boris Johnson’s government renegotiates the Northern Ireland protocol with the EU, as the DUP demands. That would put a question mark on O’Neill becoming first minister but not alter the profound psychological impact of a Sinn Féin victory.
“This place was organized more than a century ago to ensure that a Michelle O’Neill would never occupy the position of prime minister, so it’s a great moment for equality,” said Sinn Féin’s leader, Mary Lou McDonald, amid ecstatic supporters in Belfast .
The result was seismic given that Northern Ireland was an entity created on the basis of a unionist majority, said Jon Tonge, a University of Liverpool politics professor and authority on the region. “A party that does not want Northern Ireland to exist and refuses to even use the term Northern Ireland will become its biggest. It will not trigger a border poll but it is an incremental step on the long road to Irish unity.”
Proportional representation in 18 five-member constitutions was used to elect 90 members of the assembly. Turnout was 63.6%, similar to the last assembly election in 2017. Sinn Féin appeared on course to exceed the 27 seats it won then, overtaking the DUP, which was set to lose several of its 28 seats, said Nicholas Whyte, a psephologist and expert on Northern Ireland elections.
The Alliance looked likely to double its previous total of eight seats, largely at the expense of the Ulster Unionist party (UUP), the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labor party (SDLP) and the Green party, which haemorrhaged support. Transfers will determine final seats, with counting expected to continue on Saturday.
Voters ranked the cost of living and health service as their chief concerns but the campaign was dominated by unionist anger at the post-Brexit Northern Ireland protocol, which puts a trade border in the Irish Sea, and the contest between Sinn Féin and the DUP for the first minister post.
That squeezed the UUP and SDLP and let Alliance harvest the growing number of voters in the center who express frustration at traditional Orange/Green tribalism.
Unionists sought comfort in the fact that overall support for unionist parties marginally outweighed support for nationalist parties. Opinion polls show solid support for Northern Ireland remaining in the UK but Sinn Féin hope to build momentum towards a referendum on Irish unity, a goal boosted by the party’s surging popularity in the Republic of Ireland, where, under McDonald, it leads the opposition in the Dublin parliament.
“It’s a great moment that says beyond a shadow of a doubt that life has changed in the North, that things have changed in Ireland and that we are only going forward, and we are never going back,” said McDonald.
Many unionists blame the DUP for the protocol, which they fear weakens Northern Ireland’s position in the UK, and some defected to a rightwing rival, the Traditional Unionist Voice. However, Jeffrey Donaldson, the MP and DUP leader, clawed back some support by casting his party as a bulwark against a Sinn Féin prime minister.
Donaldson said he would not lead the DUP into the executive – which cannot be formed without his party – unless the protocol was replaced, putting pressure on Downing Street to amend the Brexit agreement to avert a prolonged crisis in Northern Ireland.
Naomi Long, Alliance’s leader, urged the DUP to “stop creating instability and start doing government” and accept the will of the electorate.
Since 2007 there has been a DUP first minister and Sinn Féin deputy first minister. Both posts have equal power but the more prestigious title has become a proxy test of strength. There have been calls to change the titles to co-first minister and to overhaul the Good Friday agreement-era power-sharing rules that did not anticipate the rise of a centrist political force.