Britain’s secretary of state for Northern Ireland Brandon Lewis has called on the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader Jeffrey Donaldson to nominate deputy prime minister to resume the full functioning of the Stormont Executive.
He said he plans to meet the party leaders on Monday following the watershed election that saw Sinn Féin become the largest party in the Northern Ireland Assembly for the first time.
Sinn Féin won the largest number of seats in the election and with it the right to nominate the party’s Northern leader, Michelle O’Neill, as the first minister of Northern Ireland – the first time in the North’s history that the top position has been held by a nationalist party.
With all 90 seats declared soon after 1am on Sunday, Sinn Féin had retained all its seats to win 27. The DUP won 25, the Alliance Party won 17, the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) took nine and the Social Democratic and Labor Party ( SDLP) returned a total of eight. The Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) and People Before Profit took one seat each, while two went to the Independents.
A question mark remains over whether the DUP – which resigned from the first minister position in February as part of its campaign against the Northern Ireland protocol, which is opposed by unionists – will nominate a deputy first minister when the Assembly meets next week.
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Speaking to the BBC on Sunday, Mr Lewis said: “It’s for the UK government to do the negotiations, Jeffrey and the DUP and all parties in Stormont should come together and [work to] bringing Stormont back to deliver on the domestic issues for Northern Ireland.”
Asked about the criteria for calling a Border poll in Northern Ireland, Mr Lewis said: “Sinn Fein haven’t gained seats, we haven’t seen a growth in the nationalist vote and indeed the unionist vote is still larger and the number of seats held by unionist parties is still larger.
“I think the focus at the moment quite rightly is on getting Stormont back up and running, getting the money that is moving from the UK government to Northern Ireland out to people in Northern Ireland so we can move forward on domestic issues, get the healthcare reform that people want to see and we want to get the protocol resolved for everyone in Northern Ireland.”
He described the prospect of the first nationalist prime minister as a “significant moment for Northern Ireland”. “I think it’s an important moment to show that everyone can work together regardless of who is first and deputy prime minister, that’s what democracy is about and why it’s important,” he said.
Mr Lewis also acknowledged the shift in people voting for the Alliance Party, which more than doubled the seats it has in the Assembly.
The United States’ and Irish governments also urged the North’s political parties to re-establish the power-sharing structures.
The US state department called on the parties “to take the necessary steps to re-establish a power-sharing Executive”.
This has been a historic election.
An election of real change.
I will lead the Sinn Féin team to Stormont on Monday, ready to get the Executive up and running right away.
To put money in people’s pockets.
To invest in our health service.
And to build a better future for all pic.twitter.com/orrFtCIVwl
— Michelle O’Neill (@moneillsf)
May 7, 2022
“Critical and immediate challenges concerning the economy, health and education are best addressed through the collective efforts of a returned government chosen by, and accountable to, its people,” spokesman Ned Price said.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin said it was “incumbent” on all elected representatives to deliver on their mandate through the nomination of a first and deputy first minister.
“A new power-sharing Executive is vital for progress and prosperity for all in Northern Ireland,” he added.
Sinn Féin vice-president Michelle O’Neill said the party’s historic victory “ushers in a new era” for Northern Ireland.
In her declaration speech in Magherafelt after topping the poll in Mid Ulster, Ms O’Neill said: “Today represents a very significant moment of change. Today ushers in a new era which I believer presents us all with an opportunity to reimagine relationships in this society on the basis of fairness, on the basis of equality and the basis of social justice.
“Irrespective of religious, political or social backgrounds my commitment is to make politics work.”
In a press conference shortly afterwards, party president Mary Lou McDonald said the Stormont power-sharing Executive needed to be re-established.
She said: “We would appeal to everybody to take stock, take breaths and really assess the huge responsibility that all of us carry. Collectively we have an obligation to get government up and running.”
Alliance Party leader Naomi Long said nothing can be delivered without government in Northern Ireland after her cross-community party’s election success.
The party more than doubled its tally of eight in the last vote in 2017 to elect 17 MLAs this time around, making it the third-largest party in the Assembly.
In North Belfast the outgoing minister for infrastructure, the SDLP’s Nichola Mallon, lost her seat to Alliance’s Nuala McAllister, while in South Belfast the party confounded critics, who had warned that running two candidates could split the vote, and brought home both Paula Bradshaw and her running mate Kate Nicholl – the latter at the expense of the Green Party leader Clare Bailey, who lost her seat.
In North Antrim, Patricia O’Lynn became both the first Alliance MLA and the first female to hold a seat in the constitution – here defeating the DUP veteran Mervyn Storey in what had previously been considered a DUP heartland.
Speaking at the Jordanstown count center on Saturday after Ms O’Lynn had won the final seat in North Antrim, Ms Long said she was excited about what her party could achieve at Stormont.
She said: “We went to the electorate based on a record of strong delivery in the last 2½ years. We need to get in there [Stormont] on Monday because without government we can’t deliver anything in Northern Ireland.
“I think given all the challenges that we face, if we squander this opportunity people will not forgive us, so we need to get in there.”
The DUP retained its position as the largest unionist party, despite a drop in its vote share.
Asked whether Northern Ireland will have devolved government in 2022, party leader Jeffrey Donaldson said: “Let’s cross all the bridges when we get to them.”
Mr Donaldson also said he will make it clear next week whether he will return to Stormont or remain at Westminster.
“The party officers will sit down, we will consider what we need to do now to get the action that is required from the government, I will be making my decision clear on all of that early next week,” he told the BBC.
After a poor day on Friday, there was better news for the UUP on Saturday as the former leader Mike Nesbitt and current leader Doug Beattie held their seats in Strangford and Upper Bann respectively.
There were fears Mr Beattie could lose his seat. He said on Saturday: “I think you never take the electorate for granted. . . People are going to the likes of the Alliance Party in droves because they’re being turned off by that angry, negative unionism. It might take a while to change that psyche.”
The re-election of the SDLP’s Cara Hunter in East Derry was a welcome chink of light for the party and, after the loss of four seats, ensured the party retained a female MLA among its team.
Despite its increase in vote share the TUV failed to pick up any seats beyond that of its leader Jim Allister after its best chance of a second seat, Stephen Cooper, was eliminated in Strangford. – Additional reporting PA