Sinn Fein, the pro-Ireland party, won the most local council seats in Northern Ireland on Saturday, outnumbering pro-UK unionist rivals in a historic first for the province.
The party surpassed the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) as the main force in local government in the region established just over a century ago to ensure a pro-UK majority.
With only six seats left to declare, Sinn Fein, the former political arm of the militant IRA, had won 143 of 462 seats across Northern Ireland’s 11 local councils.
The DUP has been boycotting Northern Ireland’s devolved government for 15 months due to its opposition to post-Brexit trade arrangements, thereby paralyzing its power-sharing institutions in Stormont.
Sinn Fein leader Michelle O’Neill described the outcome as “historic,” telling the BBC that her party’s campaign “resonated with the electorate.”
Sinn Fein’s impressive showing follows its historic victory in Stormont elections a year ago, when it also supplanted the DUP as the largest party in the parliament.
The recent fight over local services like as rubbish collection and recreational facilities was dominated by the question of whether the DUP would return to the government.
O’Neill said in the wake of the election result, Sinn Fein would “double down in terms of getting an executive restored”.
Earlier, she called on the British and Irish governments to “get engaged” and create “a plan now for a way back to a restored executive.”
DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson defended his party’s result saying its vote had “held up well”.
With the last seats to be declared, the pro-UK party had obtained 122 seats, matching its total from the previous municipal elections in 2019.
Sinn Fein’s triumph, according to Donaldson, is due to the “collapse” of its nationalist, pro-Ireland adversary, the Democratic Social and Labour Party (SDLP).
In February of last year, the DUP withdrew from Stormont’s devolved government in protest at the so-called Northern Ireland Protocol.
It has maintained that new commercial rules imposed by the United Kingdom following its exit from the European Union will create a schism between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.
The DUP also contends that the protocol, which maintains Northern Ireland under EU trade laws and creates a de facto trade border in the Irish Sea, increases Sinn Fein’s chances of achieving their goal of a unified Ireland.
Parts of the protocol have been renegotiated into the Windsor Framework to alleviate trade bottlenecks with the rest of the United Kingdom.
Despite the revisions, the DUP has refused to return to government, fueling political uncertainty in Northern Ireland, where 30 years of conflict against British control ended only in 1998.
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