Northern Ireland has a Sinn Féin leader. It is a historic moment.

As Michelle O’Neill walked down the marble stairs in Northern Ireland parliament building On the outskirts of Belfast on Saturday, she appeared confident and calm. She smiled as applause erupted from her supporters in the balcony. Only the seriousness of her look conveyed the gravity of the moment.

The political party it represents, Sinn Féin, was formed out of the bloody, decades-long struggle of Irish nationalists in the region who dreamed of reunification with the Republic of Ireland and overturning the 1921 partition that kept Northern Ireland under British rule.

Now, for the first time, a Sinn Fein politician holds the highest political office in Northern Ireland, a historic moment for the party and the wider region as power-sharing government is restored. The role of First Minister has always been held by a Unionist politician committed to remaining part of the United Kingdom.

“This is a day of historic change,” Ms O’Neill said. In a post on social media Which included a photo of her on the stairs. “I am determined to serve everyone as Prime Minister for everyone.”

The idea of ​​appointing a nationalist First Minister for Northern Ireland, let alone a First Minister from Sinn Féin, a party with historical ties to the IRA, was once unthinkable.

But it is the story of Sinn Fein’s transformation – from a fringe party that was once the political wing of the IRA, into a political force Won the largest number of seats in the 2022 Northern Ireland election – It is also the story of the changing political landscape and the results of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which ended the decades-long sectarian conflict known as the Troubles.

“It is certainly of great symbolic importance,” said Katie Hayward, professor of political sociology at Queen’s University Belfast. He added: “It tells us exactly how far Northern Ireland has come, and in many ways the success of the Good Friday Agreement and the use of democratic and peaceful means to achieve cooperation.”

It is not yet clear what the appointment of a Sinn Féin first minister will mean for the hopes of those who want to reunite the island after a century of separation. despite of Mary Lou McDonaldThe leader of Sinn Féin, which leads the opposition in the Irish Parliament, said last week: The prospect of a united Ireland was now within striking distanceExperts believe it is still a long way off.

Currently, the two main political forces in the region – unionists and nationalists – are engaged together in the power-sharing arrangement established in the agreement. Good Friday Agreement.

This arrangement has collapsed over the question of how political forces in Northern Ireland see themselves after Brexit.

Northern Ireland’s leading unionist party, the Democratic Unionist Party, withdrew from government in 2022, in the wake of Brexit, which established a trade border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. Wanting to protect relations with Britain, the Democratic Unionist Party feared that the maritime border would be the first step to tearing it apart.

Its boycott of the association ended last week after the British government agreed to do so Reducing customs checksStrengthening the position of Northern Ireland Within the United Kingdom And the delivery of 3.3 billion pounds, about 4 billion dollars, financial incentives.

Because it won the largest number of union seats in the 2022 elections, the Democratic Unionist Party had the right to nominate a deputy prime minister on Saturday.

The positions of Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister are formally equal, and neither can act alone to prevent either community from controlling the other. “People like to say here, ‘No one can ask for paper clips without the other’s consent,'” Ms. Hayward said. But the titles, and the fact that the role of First Minister reflects the largest number of seats, creates the idea of ​​“first among equals”.

Ms O’Neill’s appointment has inevitably put a spotlight on talks about the potential reunification of Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland one day.

Experts said that although the rise of Sinn Fein could provide further impetus to the issue, the party’s rise was a reflection of the divisions that emerged between unionist parties after Brexit, rather than a broader reflection of Irish nationalism. Current polls indicate that the majority of residents across the island do not support unification.

“They made the possibility seem realistic, and Brexit helped, because support increased somewhat,” said Jonathan Tonge, a professor of politics at the University of Liverpool who specializes in Northern Ireland, and has analyzed opinion polls on the issue extensively.

“We still have a long way to go,” he said, adding that with elections looming in the Republic of Ireland in 2025, and the possibility of a Sinn Féin government being formed there, “it’s huge in that sense.”

He pointed out that a quarter of a century ago, few people would have envisaged a Sinn Féin First Minister.

Part of this success is due to Ms. O’Neill and… Mrs. McDonaldwho helped change perceptions about the party.

“These two women do not carry the burden of membership or close association with the IRA,” said Robert Savage, a Boston College professor and expert on Irish history. “They are younger, they are articulate, they are popular, and they are smart about addressing concerns, especially young people.”

Ms O’Neill, 47, comes from a prominent Republican family in Cork, a county on the south coast of Ireland. Her father, who spent time in prison for being a member of the IRA, later became a Sinn Féin politician. But she has already made an effort to frame herself as a prime minister for everyone. She attended the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II and the coronation of King Charles III last year.

Many unionists link Sinn Fein with the history of the IRA, as do some nationalists and those who do not belong to either group. But increasingly, especially among the younger generation, the party has proven its appeal.

In the Republic of Ireland, The party won the popular vote in 2020This is partly by focusing attention on social issues such as housing and positioning itself as an alternative to the status quo. But her popularity has not extended to older voters who remember the violence of the Troubles.

In some ways, the growth of national political representation is not surprising. Demographics have shifted dramatically in Northern Ireland, with the slow erosion of the Protestant majority there attributed first to the Catholic Church’s opposition to birth control and then to economic factors such as the decline of industrial jobs, which were previously held mostly by Protestants.

Catholics outnumber Protestants in Northern Ireland for the first time in 2022 According to census numbers. Northern Ireland is no longer the dualistic society it once was. Decades of peace have attracted new arrivals, and like much of the world, the island has become increasingly secular. The labels Catholicism and Protestantism have been left as clumsy shorthand for the cultural and political divide.

A large percentage of the population does not know any religion. When it comes to political positions, the largest single group – 38% – considers themselves neither nationalist nor unionist, According to the Life and Times in Northern Ireland Survey.

Since Brexit, there has been Supporting Northern Ireland remaining in the United Kingdom and increased support for Irish unification. Many voters saw secession from Europe as economically devastating and threatening cross-border relations, as the island enjoyed decades where EU membership helped foster peace.

Currently, the restored government in Belfast has more pressing issues to address. Last month, tens of thousands of public sector workers walked out to protest wages, in the largest strike in Northern Ireland in recent memory. The healthcare sector is in crisis, and the rising costs of living have been felt more acutely there than elsewhere in the UK.

Paul Doherty, a city councilor who represents west Belfast, one of the most deprived communities in Northern Ireland, said: “Look at what happened when people got around a table and worked to create peace here, and that resulted in the Good Friday Agreement.” “I think we need to revive that spirit that we had in the 1990s.”

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