The grip of Irish nationalists (mostly Catholics) on Northern Ireland is confirmed. For the first time in Northern Ireland’s history, Sinn Fein, the main pro-reunification party, came out on top in the local elections held on Thursday, May 18, whose final results were not published until Saturday. In 2022, the former political arm of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) already won the regional parliamentary elections for the first time since the partition of Ireland (in 1921). The shock is a harsh one for the Northern Irish Unionist community (Protestant, in favor of remaining in the United Kingdom), which was previously in a dominant position.
Some 462 council seats were up for election in the 11 Northern Irish local authority wards. Sinn Fein succeeded in getting 144 candidates elected (39 more than in the 2019 municipal elections), particularly in places like Lisburn and Ballymena in the east, previously considered unionist strongholds. In Belfast, the unionists now hold only 17 of the 60 seats on the city council of the Northern Irish capital.
Also present in the Republic of Ireland (in opposition but increasingly popular), Sinn Fein has benefited from strong mobilization of its supporters and an underlying demographic trend – according to the 2021 census, Catholics now outnumber Protestants in Northern Ireland.
Moreover, Brexit has severely weakened the Protestant community. The DUP (Democratic Unionist Party), the leading unionist, which had supported leaving the European Union in 1996, managed to maintain its level in 2019 (with 122 councilors) but continues to lose the votes of moderate unionists, who prefer Alliance (a neutral party from a constitutional point of view), exasperated by the negative and backward-looking attitude of the DUP.
For more than a year, the DUP has refused to participate in the Northern Ireland Assembly (the Stormont), preventing the formation of a government and undermining the Good Friday Peace Treaty that ended the 30-year civil war between Catholics and Protestants in 1998 by establishing power sharing between the two communities. The DUP initially rejected the Northern Irish Protocol on the grounds that it threatened the British identity of the Unionists. This part of the Brexit treaty guaranteed the dual status of the nation – it is British but remains partly in the European internal market to avoid the construction of a customs border on the island.
Rishi Sunak’s government succeeded in renegotiating the terms of the protocol with Brussels in February. The new arrangement, known as the Windsor Framework, limits customs controls between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom to a minimum. But the DUP continues to block the institutions, making it impossible to vote on a budget for Northern Ireland, worsening the state of the local health service and, incidentally, preventing Sinn Fein’s deputy leader Michelle O’Neill from filling her role as the province’s First Minister.
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