Voters in Northern Ireland will elect a new assembly on 5th May. Polls suggest Sinn Fein could for the first time defeat unionists to become the largest party.
“The facts are that the balance of… has shifted irreversibly, and political unionism must come to terms with the fact that the world is moving on fast and on the 5th May this election has the potential to bring about an historic and a seismic shift in the political landscape.”Michelle O’Neill, RTE News
That’s Michelle O’Neill.
She’s the deputy first minister of Northern Ireland and vice president of Sinn Fein.
And on 5 May, in just over a week’s time, she’ll be leading her party as Northern Ireland heads to the polls.
“This election is about much more than Stormont for Sinn Fein. A good result could drive this campaign to become the largest party across the island of Ireland and to lead the government on both sides of the border, a poor result could seriously dent that ambition.”RTE News
If recent polling is anything to go by, the election could result in a historic shift as Sinn Fein seems likely to emerge as the biggest party.
“In the latest polling, Sinn Fein have a pretty significant lead over the DUP, the Democratic Unionist Party, meaning they could be on course to secure the most number of seats at Stormont for the first time ever.”GB News
If this happens it would be hugely symbolic in showing how the ground has shifted towards a nationalist vote in Northern Ireland.
If Sinn Fein has the largest number of seats it would have the right to appoint the first minister and, it would put the party in sight of being in power on both sides of the border after the next election in the Republic of Ireland.
Sinn Fein believes in a united Ireland.
But Michelle O’Neill has campaigned on the cost-of-living crisis and grassroots voter concerns like housing, health and jobs.
As a former local councillor and mayor who had the first of her two children when she was 16, Michelle O’Neill has a record of fighting for social and economic equality in her previous roles.
When she was Health Minister in 2016, she lifted the ban on gay men donating blood.
Michelle O’Neill comes from a family with strong republican sympathies. Her father and uncle were provisional IRA prisoners during the ‘Troubles’. Two of her cousins, who were in the IRA, were shot – one fatally – by British special forces.
“Two others were shot and injured, one of them was hit in another getaway car which ended up crashing into a ditch nearly half a mile away…”Archive footage
She represents a new generation of younger politicians who had little direct experience of “The Troubles”. But many unionists remain suspicious of her.
So what would it mean if Sinn Fein becomes the largest party in Northern Ireland’s assembly?
A dominant Sinn Fein would be humiliating for the current largest party, the Democratic Unionist Party, or DUP.
They suffered from an embarrassing leadership crisis last summer when the party ousted two leaders in two months. And their miscalculations over Brexit that resulted in the Irish Sea border aren’t working in their favour either.
In recent weeks a string of rallies against the Northern Ireland protocol, which manages trade checks between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, have taken place… with reports that the UK government is now looking to scrap it.
[Clip of rally against the Northern Ireland protocol]
On the big constitutional question of a referendum on Irish reunification Sinn Fein says they’d set up a Citizen’s Assembly to look at it.
Here’s Michelle O’Neill speaking to Sky News in February…
“I signed up to the Good Friday agreement so it will be people here alone that will decide if there’s constitutional change. They’ll never be anything forced upon people.”Michelle O’Neill, Sky News
A Sinn Fein first minister in Stormont would mean both Scotland and Northern Ireland are led by politicians who want to leave the UK.
A recent poll by the University of Liverpool and the Irish News suggests just over 30 per cent of people in Northern Ireland would vote for a united Ireland.
In the Republic of Ireland polls suggest voters are consistently in favour of a united Ireland.
A historic moment is in reach for Sinn Fein. It would end a century in which the largest party in Northern Ireland has come from the unionist community. The mood, on both sides of the border, is clearly shifting and that could have significant consequences for the future of the United Kingdom.
Today’s story was written and produced by Imy Harper.
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