BELFAST, Northern Ireland — Since Northern Ireland was founded as a predominantly Protestant state a century ago, its governments have been led by Unionist politicians who identify as British.
But if opinion polls are correct, an election on Thursday will see Sinn Fein, an Irish nationalist party that seeks to unite with Ireland, become the largest group in the Northern Ireland Assembly which has 90 seats. This would give Sinn Fein the Premiership of Belfast Government for the first time.
It would be a milestone for a party long linked to the Irish Republican Army, a paramilitary group that has used bombs and bullets to try to wrest Northern Ireland from British rule during decades of violence – in which the British Army and the Royal Ulster Constabulary, as well as Protestant loyalist paramilitaries, were also heavily involved.
It would also bring Sinn Fein’s ultimate goal of a united Ireland closer.
But that’s not what the party — or voters — want to talk about in a campaign that has been dominated by more immediate concerns: long waiting lists for medical care and soaring food and meat prices. fuel.
“I now limit my heat to an hour a day,” said Sinead Quinn, who set up the group Derry Against Food Poverty to lobby politicians to act on the cost of living crisis.
“My whole circle of friends is affected by this. I don’t think you can throw a stone in Northern Ireland and miss a community affected by it.”
The economic crisis – driven by the war in Ukraine, the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic and Britain’s exit from the European Union – is also dominating the electoral debate elsewhere in the UK. Votes on Thursday to elect the Local authorities in England, Scotland and Wales are a test for beleaguered British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, whose popularity has been hit by scandals over breaking lockdown rules.
In Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein downplayed talk of a united Ireland in its campaign to focus on bread and butter issues.
“The things that the public want us to respond to is to try to put money in their pockets to help them deal with the cost of living crisis,” Michelle O’Neill said Tuesday, leader of the party in Northern Ireland, during a television broadcast. electoral debate. She said she was not “set on a date” for a unification referendum.
Even so, Katy Hayward, professor of political sociology at Queen’s University Belfast, said Sinn Fein taking the top spot would be a “very significant” moment.
“And we know the nationalists will recognize it as such, even if they don’t necessarily want an imminent border poll,” she said. “And of course trade unionists will also see this as an important and critical moment.”
“In terms of what the election outcome will mean, a lot of it is how other parties react to this scenario.”
Many voters simply hope the election will produce a functioning government, but that seems unlikely in the short term.
Under Northern Ireland’s power-sharing system, created by the 1998 peace accord that ended decades of Catholic-Protestant conflict, the posts of Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister are divided between the biggest unionist party and the biggest nationalist party.
Both positions must be filled for a government to function. The Democratic Unionist Party, which has been the largest in the Northern Ireland Assembly for two decades, has suggested it may not serve under a Sinn Fein premier.
The DUP also said it would refuse to join a new government unless there were major changes to the post-Brexit border arrangements, known as the Northern Ireland Protocol, which many trade unionists oppose.
“Political institutions must be durable.” DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson said during Tuesday’s debate. “And that means we have to deal with the big issues that are before us, not least the harm that the Northern Ireland Protocol is doing to undermine political stability in Northern Ireland.”
Post-Brexit rules have imposed customs and border checks on certain goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK. The arrangement was designed to maintain an open border between Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland, a key pillar of the peace process.
But unionists say the new controls have created a barrier between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK that undermines their British identity.
The instability has led to rising tensions and sporadic violence, including a week of riots in Protestant loyalist areas a year ago. Police were pelted with petrol bombs last month after a dissident Irish Republican parade in Derry, also known as Londonderry.
The UK government is pressuring the EU to agree to major changes – scrapping most controls – and threatening to unilaterally suspend the rules if the bloc refuses.
Negotiations are at an impasse, with the bloc accusing Johnson of refusing to implement the rules he agreed to in a legally binding treaty.
Meanwhile, politics in Northern Ireland are changing. More support is going to parties that do not identify as either nationalist or unionist, with young people increasingly rejecting traditional labels. Polls suggest the centrist Alliance party is in contention for second place with the DUP, another potentially seismic development.
The full results of the election, which uses a proportional representation system, are not expected until the weekend at the earliest.
The new lawmakers will meet next week to try to form an executive. If none can be formed within six months, the administration will collapse, triggering a new election and more uncertainty.
Quinn, the anti-poverty activist, said it would be a “dereliction of duty”.
“Both communities – all communities and none – are struggling here,” she said.
“I really hope the politicians are listening.”
Jill Lawless reported from London