In January, Sinn Féin, Northern Ireland’s second-largest party, abandoned the government, causing its collapse and triggering a new round of elections. Sinn Féin’s decision was a distinct act of protest, a reaction to a scandal that has ensnared Arlene Foster, the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the country’s largest political party. The new election, which was held on Thursday, was Northern Ireland’s second in just 10 months.
On Friday, as results began to come in, Foster told a journalist from Sky News, “This has been a very good day for Sinn Féin.” Of course, she’s correct. Sinn Féin has gained a good deal of ground, coming within just one assembly seat of the DUP, denying Foster’s party the crucial 30-seat plurality that allows any party to employ a veto mechanism, the same mechanism which the DUP recently used to block same-sex marriage legislation. But the DUP and Sinn Féin are still Northern Ireland’s two largest parties, and the issues that precipitated this snap election in the first place remain unresolved.
Overall turnout on Thursday was almost 65 percent—an increase of almost 10 points from the most recent election last May. Perhaps some of that spike in participation stems from the fact that this is no ordinary election. In many ways, its result will test the resilience of Northern Ireland’s fragile power-sharing system, set up in 1997 by the Good Friday Agreement, which officially ended the almost three decades of sectarian fighting known as the “Troubles.” From 1969 to 1997, unionists and republicans fought, often violently, over the fate of their country. The unionists wanted the North to remain a part of the United Kingdom, while the republicans wanted the North to join the Republic of Ireland. To appease both communities, the Good Friday Agreement established a system in which power would be shared. The two sides—largely represented in this election by the republican Sinn Féin and the unionist DUP (both communities also include numerous other smaller parties)—pledged to govern together, with the republican community accepting the North’s continued status within the U.K., and the unionist community agreeing to share political power with republicans. (In Northern Ireland, republicans are often called nationalists. There are differences between the two, but the terms refer to the same broad community.)