DUBLIN — Sinn Fein enjoyed a potentially historic surge in support Friday as ballots were counted for seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly, a contest triggered by the Irish nationalist party in a bitter showdown with its longtime Protestant partners in government.
At stake in the outcome from Thursday’s snap election is the revival or demise of power-sharing between Irish Catholics and British Protestants, the central objective of the U.S.-brokered Good Friday peace accord nearly two decades ago.
Early partial results from a ballot count expected to run until Saturday afternoon pointed to solid gains for Sinn Fein amid the highest voter turnout since the peace breakthrough year of 1998. Turnout ran highest in Sinn Fein’s traditional working-class Catholic power bases.
Sinn Fein is seeking to overtake the Protestants of the Democratic Unionists and become the No. 1 party for the first time in Northern Ireland — an achievement that would give Sinn Fein the right to the top government post of “first minister.”
Under Northern Ireland’s complex system of proportional representation, five lawmakers will be elected from each of 18 districts in descending order of popularity. The process requires several rounds of ballot recounting to transfer votes from confirmed winners and losers to those still in contention. Early results often cannot pinpoint who might win the final seat.
Sinn Fein achieved poll-topping results in nine districts, including Mid-Ulster, where the party’s new leader in Northern Ireland, 40-year-old Michelle O’Neill, was mobbed by supporters.
O’Neill, the daughter of an Irish Republican Army veteran with childhood memories of the conflict that claimed 3,700 lives, represents a leadership shift within Sinn Fein to the first post-war generation following the IRA’s 1997 cease-fire and 2005 disarmament.
Friday’s final Northern Ireland-wide total of first-preference votes — the core measure of party popularity — showed the Democratic Unionists narrowly on top with 28.1 percent, down 1 point from the last election 10 months ago. Sinn Fein trailed with 27.9 percent, up 4 points, the narrowest sectarian gap in Northern Ireland electoral history.
Many analysts forecast that the Democratic Unionists will stay barely ahead of Sinn Fein in seat numbers in the 90-member Assembly when Saturday’s final winners are declared, but it could come down to unpredictable handfuls of transferred votes.
With more than a third of winners declared Friday evening, Sinn Fein had won 16 seats, the Democratic Unionists 10, four other parties the rest.
Commentators credited the Sinn Fein surge to Catholic voters’ anger at the Democratic Unionists, especially outgoing First Minister Arlene Foster, who was blamed for overseeing a wasteful “green energy” program and for fostering a culture of insult and disrespect toward Sinn Fein.
Voter turnout reached nearly 65 percent, 10 points higher than last year.
Former Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness triggered the election by resigning in January, declaring the vote a referendum on Foster’s leadership. McGuinness, a former IRA commander recently diagnosed with a rare and often fatal disease, insisted his health wasn’t a factor. He didn’t seek re-election.
Democratic Unionist lawmakers publicly insist they won’t let Sinn Fein dictate who their own leader should be. But Foster, party chief for barely a year, could be forced to step down should Sinn Fein overtake her party in the final seat tally.
On the campaign trail, a highly organized Sinn Fein effectively mocked some of Foster’s more acidic rhetoric, such as when she compared compromise with Sinn Fein to feeding a crocodile. Sinn Fein activists soon could be seen passing out election flyers in crocodile costumes.
The question of who holds the post of “first minister” versus “deputy first minister,” the position held by McGuinness since the rise of a Democratic Unionist-Sinn Fein government in 2007, is purely symbolic — and all the more poisonous a point of contention because of its symbolism.
Power-sharing rules give both positions equal authority. Both leaders are supposed to act in unison and speak with one voice. Yet the diminutive addition of “deputy” makes one appear subservient to the other — so much so that Sinn Fein has insisted for the past decade on lowercasing the D.
Were Sinn Fein to grow strong enough to win the top post, it would reflect a stunning demographic reversal in a state whose very creation in 1920 was drawn to ensure a Protestant majority on an otherwise overwhelmingly Catholic island.
“The DUP simply cannot stomach a system with Sinn Fein on top,” Belfast political analyst Alex Kane said. “They sold power-sharing to their supporters on the basis that unionism would be confident, strong, in charge. They need a DUP first minister.”