BELFAST (Reuters) – Irish nationalists Sinn Féin followed up their historic victory in last year’s Northern Ireland Assembly by beating unionist rivals by a wide margin in council elections on Saturday to become the largest party at a local level for the first time.
It is the latest political milestone for the former political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) who wants to leave the UK and form a united Ireland.
The left-wing party also leads comfortably in opinion polls in the Republic of Ireland ahead of national elections due in 2025.
Sinn Féin’s share of the vote jumped nearly 8 points to 31% and won 137 out of 462 seats with 16 yet to be announced. The Democratic Unionist Party, which until last year was the largest party at the local and regional level, had 118.
“Historic change is happening, and Sinn Féin is driving that change across Ireland,” said Northern Ireland party leader Michelle O’Neill, who told the DUP that voters wanted them to end the 15-month provincial assembly boycott.
The DUP had presented the election as an opportunity to strengthen its call for more concessions from Britain on post-Brexit Northern Ireland trade – the reason for its boycott – and said the results were a “strong mandate” from the union community.
The party advanced by one seat in the 2019 result as counting drew to a close, with Sinn Féin’s success coming at the expense of more nationalist and unity parties in the centre.
The cross-sectarian coalition party made more limited gains than expected while the traditionally small and hardline Unionist voice – which pressured the DUP on post-Brexit trade checks that many Unionists feel undermined their standing in the UK – failed to replicate the increase. in their vote at the regional level.
“We want the (British) government to live up to the commitments it has made to protect Northern Ireland’s place within the UK and I hope to see progress in the next few weeks,” Geoffrey Donaldson, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, told Reuters.
“You cannot do without the unionists, you cannot do without the Democratic Unionist Party. The unions will not be pushed to the side.”
The poll also marks the first time a black person has been elected to office in Northern Ireland, with Maasai woman Lillian Sinui Parr winning a seat for the nationalist SDLP.
Writing by Padrick Halpin. Editing by Hugh Lawson
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