200211 Sinn Fein
Irish republican Sinn Fein party leader Mary Lou McDonald reacts as she meets members of the public during a walkabout in the centre of Dublin, Ireland Image Credit: AFP

When the state of Northern Ireland was created 102 years ago, it was done so on the belief that the unionist population there who wished the region to remain part of the United Kingdom would remain in a majority. Following elections to the regional assembly on Thursday, that century of political logic was turned upside down, with Sinn Fein — a party intent on the reunification of Ireland — winning most seats.

For the first time in its history and since the power-sharing government took effect following the Good Friday peace accords signed to end decades of political violence, a nationalist party has won most seats.

While there is little likelihood that a vote will be called on the immediate future of the border that separates it with the Republic of Ireland to the south, the election result nevertheless is an important and historic milestone in the island’s history.

A sea change

Up until now, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) has won most seats, but its support has slipped as it argues that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson needs to renegotiate the Brexit agreement with the European Union, a deal he secured that set the customs union between the United Kingdom and the rest of Europe down the Irish Sea.

That means that Northern Ireland follows the EU in customs rules – a status unionists say weakens its position in the union that binds it with England, Scotland and Wales.

The province faces weeks if not months of protracted political talks to try and find a formula that will allow the DUP to work as a junior party to Sinn Fein in the power-sharing executive.

Hallmark of Northern Ireland society

Significantly, Thursday’s election result also showed that there is a growing body of voters who support the Alliance party that shuns the green and orange political divide that has been the hallmark of Northern Ireland society for the last century.

There is also a danger that if the political impasse continues, the regional assembly won’t be able to convene, meaning that the affairs of the province would be overseen by ministers in London with the Dublin government having an input.

As with voters elsewhere in the UK, Northern Irish families face a steep rise in their energy costs, rising bills for food and fuel, and a health service that is reeling from the pressures caused by the coronavirus pandemic. For now, those are the issues voters want solved. But they might also have to begin thinking of where their best economic and political fortunes lie — in the United Kingdom or in a united Ireland.