BELFAST — Sinn Fein appears on track to claim the top spot in elections in Northern Ireland on Thursday, marking the first time a party devoted to the unification of Ireland, north and south, would dominate in the region that remains a factious member of the United Kingdom.
But a Sinn Fein victory would be a historic moment for a political movement whose founders are even today denounced by critics as former terrorists. A win could also signal that the politics in the north — where demographics are slowly changing — is moving away from a pro-British majority to one perhaps more keen to see a united Ireland.
Sinn Fein is a party historically associated with the Irish Republican Army and the decades of violence known as “the Troubles.” But since the U.S.-brokered Good Friday Agreement in 1998, the party has committed itself to peaceful coexistence and political power-sharing in Northern Ireland, where its members have governed — often in a state of shared paralysis — alongside the unionists, who represent the descendants of British settlers on the island of Ireland and who want to remain in the United Kingdom.
The first minister in the power-sharing government has until now always been a unionist, with Sinn Fein filling the position of deputy first minister since 2007. Since it is a joint office, there is not much practical difference between the titles. But a win this week would allow Sinn Fein to name the first minister, a historic change with big psychological implications for Northern Ireland politics.
The role would go to Michelle O’Neill, the party’s leader in the north since 2017.
O’Neill, 45, joined Sinn Fein after the Good Friday Agreement, when she was in her early 20s. She’s too young for the stereotypical slur that the party is made up of former terrorists. But some British media outlets have hyped that her late father, a former local Sinn Fein lawmaker, was imprisoned for IRA membership during the Troubles.
“Nobody owns the office of first minister or deputy first minister,” O’Neill said in a televised debate Sunday. “As a matter of fact, nobody owns any office in this land. The days of doing democracy on unionist terms are gone. What we need to now do is form an executive and deliver for people.”
O’Neill has said she wants to be a leader of all the people in Northern Ireland, unionist and nationalist — “someone that’s about equality for everybody.”
But getting a functioning government after the vote could prove difficult. A looming question is whether the leading unionist party will agree to participate.
The Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly have collapsed multiple times, as a result of political protests and lack of trust between the parties.
Most recently, the Democratic Unionist Party withdrew its first minister, Paul Givan, just weeks before the end of the assembly term. The DUP cited concerns about post-Brexit trade arrangements. But the move was interpreted by political opponents as cynical electioneering.
In the last assembly election, in 2017, only one seat separated Sinn Fein and the DUP. Of the 90 assembly seats available, the DUP won 28, Sinn Fein 27.
Opinion polling ahead of this week’s election has been limited, but the surveys find Sinn Fein with a small but consistent advantage over other parties.
In Sunday’s debate, the DUP’s Jeffrey Donaldson framed the election as a choice between his party’s plan to address “issues that really matter to the people out there” and “Sinn Fein’s divisive border poll.”
But Sinn Fein in this campaign has played down its long-term aspirations for border referendums. Instead, bread-and-butter issues — such as a cost-of-living crisis, health-care waiting lists and rebuilding the economy — have dominated the agenda.
Political commentator Chris Donnelly, a primary-school principal and former Sinn Fein election candidate, called a possible win by Sinn Fein “a landmark.”
Donnelly praised the party for running a nuanced electoral campaign pitched to the middle ground.
“They are talking up the cost-of-living crisis, and they are not hiding their desire for Irish unity, but they are putting a context to it, because they are trying to expand their appeal to that middle band of voters who will decide the outcome of a border poll,” he said.
Also in the campaign conversation: the toxic aftermath of Brexit.
To reach a Brexit deal with the European Union, Prime Minister Boris Johnson agreed to the Northern Ireland Protocol, which set trade rules in a particular way to protect the E.U.’s single market and maintain the Good Friday peace.
Johnson and the E.U. decided to essentially keep Northern Ireland in the E.U. single market for goods, averting a hard border between Northern Ireland and E.U. member Ireland. The protocol allows for controls and customs checks on goods moving across the Irish Sea, between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.
Now, Johnson says the protocol he negotiated is unworkable. He wants the E.U. to agree to a major overhaul — and he is threatening to take unilateral action.
Unionist politicians of all stripes despise the protocol. They view it as damaging to Northern Ireland’s union with Great Britain and its place within the U.K. internal market. Some unionists view the protocol as creating an “economic united Ireland” as a precursor to a political united Ireland.
Many steps would need to happen before any unification, and no one realistically expects it to happen imminently.
Polling shows support for Irish unity is below 50 percent in both jurisdictions on the island of Ireland.
But advocates say that could change once a referendum campaign was underway. And the demographic trajectory in Northern Ireland is in their favor.
In simplified terms, the oldest citizens tend to be from Protestant, unionist and British loyalist backgrounds, with the youngest citizens, and therefore the next batches of voters, more likely to be from Catholic, nationalist, Irish republican backgrounds.
And polling indicates there is more support for Irish unity among younger members of the population.
Sinn Fein member and hospitality worker Michelle Davidson, 44, was canvassing for the party in north Belfast last week.
“It’s a hard yes,” she reported to fellow canvassers as she walked toward them along a garden path, away from a voter’s house. She made some notes on her clipboard and ticked the house number off her list.
Davidson is like many Sinn Fein activists who got involved after the Good Friday Agreement. She said she joined the party because she liked its policies on public services and its plans for health-care reform. But also, “I want a united Ireland, which Sinn Fein will help to bring about.”
William Booth in London contributed to this report.