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Sinn Féin dominates Northern Ireland, unions in chaos after Brexit

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BELFAST – Sinn Féin, the Irish republican party that wants to break up with Northern Ireland, has become the region's main player in the British parliament – despite its MPs refusing to sit there.

Sinn Féin secured a series of often lopsided victories on Friday, easily retaining seven parliamentary seats. He won by 179 votes against the main pro-British party, the Democratic Unionists, which saw its own support fall to its lowest level in a quarter of a century in the post-Brexit collapse.

Sinn Féin came third north of the border, winning the most seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly in 2022 and the most seats in its local councils in 2023. Thanks to any Northern Irish party, the DUP slumped to just five seats.

It boosted Sinn Féin's morale after recent difficulties in the Republic of Ireland, where the party has never been in government but hopes to make a breakthrough in elections due later this year.

Sinn Féin party leader Mary Lou MacDonald and Prime Minister Michelle O'Neill put their biggest smiles on Friday for the victory of the party's new recruit, former head of the British Nurses Union, Pat Cullen.

Cullen's surprise recruitment – who had never run for political office in British trade union politics – reflected Sinn Féin's desire to move further away from its roots in the Irish Republican Army, led by MacDonald. The traditional left-wing platform is increasingly carried by women.

Cullen won the vast border constituency of Fermanagh-South Tyrone, where IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands was elected MP from his deathbed in prison in 1981 – an electoral earthquake that saw Sinn Féin stand in a British election for the first time.

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In subsequent decades, particularly after the IRA ceasefire in the 1990s, Sinn Féin and the Unionists made Fermanagh-South Tyrone the most contested constituency in the UK – but this is no longer the case.

Cullen won a landslide victory on Friday with a majority of 4,500 votes over his moderate unionist rival, although Democratic Unionists pulled back to make a Sinn Féin victory more difficult.

Even more surprisingly, Sinn Féin significantly reduced the DUP's margin of victory in predominantly Protestant districts that had always been represented by Unionists since the state was founded in 1921. It won the DUP's longest-serving MP in East Londonderry by 179 votes. , Gregory Campbell.

The Democratic Unionists lost three unionist constituencies to other parties – including, unexpectedly, North Antrim, which was considered their safest, which DUP founder Ian Paisley first won in 1970.

The Paisley dynasty ruled North Antrim for 54 years without real opposition until the late preacher's son, Ian Paisley Jnr, lost re-election by 450 votes. The winner, Jim Allister, is a former DUP MP who has denounced the Northern Ireland peace process – which the DUP's belated support for – would lead to a united Ireland.

UK election results

Democratic Unionist Party

Social Democratic and Labor Party

Northern Ireland Alliance Party

650/650 seats allotted

Participation rate: 67.3%

Democratic Unionist Party

Social Democratic and Labor Party

Northern Ireland Alliance Party

Ulster Unionist Party

Undeclared results

648/650 seats allotted

Source: BBC

Conversely, as Sinn Féin continues to strengthen its support base in Northern Ireland, its activists are not talking about their long-term goal of pushing the region away from the UK and into a neighboring EU state. Instead, they emphasize the need for better UK-funded services, particularly for the most basic of them, the National Health Service. Waiting times for specialist appointments and surgeries are among the longest in Northern Ireland, something Cullen is committed to highlighting as an MP, drawing on her experience as a nurse and her relationships with carers.

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The Northern Ireland Peace Agreement of 1998 committed the British government to holding a referendum on the unification of Northern Ireland if the political positions in Northern Ireland were likely to obtain a majority vote in favor of unity. But new Prime Minister Keir Starmer has stressed that such a vote is unlikely in Labour's next five-year term.

However, some analysts say the growth of Sinn Féin in Northern Ireland amid a growing Catholic community inevitably paves the way for such a referendum, a trend reinforced by Friday's results. The results highlight the overwhelming support of young voters in Northern Ireland's Irish nationalist side, and not its moderate rival, the Social Democratic and Labor Party (SDLP), which retained two MPs.

“The under 30s in the national community are overwhelmingly supportive of Sinn Féin. They turn to Sinn Féin and want to vote for change – a party that has nothing to do with Westminster,” said Brian Feeney, a former SDLP member and former history teacher in Belfast who now analyzes Northern Irish politics.

“As the demographics shift in favor of the nationalists, the north of Ireland is changing,” said Feeney, who sees east Londonderry falling to Sinn Féin as the party continues to shift the electoral map from unionist orange to national green. “Next time, either Gregory Campbell or the DUP candidate will lose the seat. »

Sinn Féin is now sticking to its policy of not allowing its MPs to sit on the green benches in the House of Commons, citing their obligation to swear allegiance to King Charles.

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However, some commentators, such as the Belfast Telegraph's Sam McBride, believe it is only a matter of time before Sinn Féin ends its boycott of British parliamentary politics – if only it gets a new and powerful platform to call for a vote on a united Ireland.

They cite the slow evolution of Sinn Féin from its pre-Bobby Sands existence as an IRA mouthpiece determined not to rule governments but to overthrow them.

“History is littered,” argued McBride, “with the remnants of positions left behind by Sinn Féin. »

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