(Bloomberg) -- Sinn Fein has become the biggest party in Northern Ireland’s local government for the first time ever, a historic victory that will heap pressure on the Democratic Unionist Party to end its Brexit-linked boycott of the region’s power-sharing government.
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Nationalist party Sinn Fein won 144 of the 462 council seats available. That’s 39 more than it had previously and exceeds the DUP’s unchanged total of 122, which had formerly made it the dominant party in local government. The success adds to Sinn Fein’s momentum, after it emerged last year as the biggest in the Stormont Assembly, the first time for a nationalist group in the region’s history.
Sinn Fein attracted 31% of first preference votes, while the DUP drew 23%, an 8% gain and 0.8% drop respectively from the 2019 local elections.
“Sinn Fein’s success is even greater than anyone predicted,” said Katy Hayward, professor of political sociology at Queen’s University Belfast. “The fact that they got their turnout up in their areas is a sign of a determination and unity among nationalist voters in stark contrast with unionist voters.”
The result will strengthen Sinn Fein’s call to form a government with their nominee Michelle O’Neill as First Minister, while also intensifying pressure on the DUP to climb down from its boycott of the regional government.
The standoff, a protest against post-Brexit trading arrangements for Northern Ireland, has left Stormont with no functioning government since February 2022, hampering efforts to tackle a cost-of-living crisis.
DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson criticized the division between unionist parties, but said the DUP vote had “held up remarkably well.”
“This strengthens our mandate,” Donaldson told reporters in Belfast as the results emerged. “We’re determined to finish the job. I’ll be going back to the government with our proposals and I believe we will see progress,” he added.
The Traditional Unionist Voice party, which like the DUP staunchly opposes the Brexit deal, gained 3 councillors, while the more moderate Ulster Unionist Party lost 21 seats.
The DUP’s stance has drawn criticism from global leaders, including US President Joe Biden, and risks undermining the peace process, 25 years after the Good Friday Agreement mostly ended violence between nationalists and unionists.
The biggest unionist party has refused to take its place in Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government to protest the arrangements agreed between the UK and European Union designed to avoid creating a hard border on the island of Ireland.
The DUP sees the deal as undermining Northern Ireland’s place in the UK because in terms of trade, the region kept one foot in the EU’s single market.
Even so, the UK and EU have made clear negotiations are over, leaving the DUP little room to maneuver. Opponents also accuse the DUP of not wanting it to take its place in the government with a Sinn Fein first minister.
Even if they secure reassurances from the UK government regarding Northern Ireland’s place in the UK, “it is difficult to see them turning back anytime soon to restoring power-sharing,” Hayward said. “After that, they lose leverage and have to face up to being a minority in the Assembly on the very topic they have staked everything on.”
Northern Ireland’s Alliance Party, which identifies as neither nationalist nor unionist and has campaigned against the current political stalemate, also saw significant gains. It added 14 seats to total 67, setting it up as the third-largest party in local government, in line with its position in Stormont.
Meanwhile, nationalist electoral success points to a shifting of the political ground away from the unionist cause, especially after Catholics became the biggest religious group in Northern Ireland last year.
The result will add momentum to the growing strength of Sinn Fein — which wants to see a united Ireland — on both sides of the border. Already the largest party in Stormont, the party is also the most popular in the Republic of Ireland.
“This election confirms the political landscape has changed and Northern Ireland is now a three-party system,” Deirdre Heenan, professor of social policy at Ulster University, said. “A shrewd positive campaign by Sinn Fein has paid dividends. For the second time in two years the DUP has come second to Sinn Fein — a huge psychological blow.”
(Updates with final results throughout)
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