Talking point

Northern Ireland election: is Sinn Fein poised for victory?

The current poll average puts its support at 24%, against the Democratic Unionist Party’s 19%

There are elections across the UK next week, said The Guardian. Much attention has been devoted to their potential impact on Boris Johnson’s leadership, but the most profound consequences of the 5 May ballots may actually be felt in Northern Ireland. All 90 members of the Stormont Assembly will be elected by proportional representation, and there’s a good chance that Sinn Féin will emerge with the largest number of seats.

The current poll average puts its support at 24%, against the Democratic Unionist Party’s 19%. This would give the party the right to nominate its deputy leader, Michelle O’Neill, as the new first minister. In practical terms, it needn’t lead to a huge change. Under the power-sharing arrangement, the two largest parties must govern together, or not at all. But it would represent “a historic moment” for Northern Ireland, which has been led by unionists for more than a century.

This could be the most significant Stormont election in decades, said Ailbhe Rea in the New Statesman. There is now a “realistic prospect” that Ireland could have a Sinn Féin first minister in the north as well as a Sinn Féin taoiseach in the south, raising the chance of a referendum on unification. Yet such a poll won’t happen any time soon. Sinn Féin has built its support in the north by putting the Irish unity issue “on the back-burner” and concentrating instead on voters’ everyday concerns, such as healthcare and the cost of living.

Northern Ireland’s politicians will struggle to deliver on any of their election pledges in the current political climate, said Jude Webber in the Financial Times. The DUP pulled out of the Stormont executive back in February in a row over the post-Brexit trading arrangements known as the Northern Ireland Protocol. And it has refused to commit to nominating a deputy first minister if Sinn Féin comes first in next week’s elections, which could render the assembly unable to function. Months of “political paralysis” likely await.

To make matters worse, Downing Street has chosen this of all moments to suggest that it may introduce legislation granting the UK the power to unilaterally override key elements of the Northern Ireland Protocol, said Bobby McDonagh in The Irish Times. The move is “presumably designed to boost the chances of the DUP” in the elections, but it’s fundamentally unhelpful. Such a step would only “further unsettle the delicate situation in Northern Ireland by moving the real and unavoidable challenges of dealing with the consequences of Brexit back to square one”.

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