The Irish nationalist party Sinn Fein, which seeks unification with Ireland, hailed a “new era” Saturday for Northern Ireland as it captured the largest number of seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly for the first time in a historic win.
With almost all votes counted from Thursday’s local U.K. election, Sinn Fein secured 27 of the Assembly’s 90 seats. The Democratic Unionist Party, which has dominated Northern Ireland’s legislature for two decades, captured 24 seats. The victory means Sinn Fein is entitled to the post of first minister in Belfast — a first for an Irish nationalist party since Northern Ireland was founded as a Protestant-majority state in 1921.
The centrist Alliance Party, which doesn’t identify as either nationalist or unionist, also saw a huge surge in support and was set to become the other big winner in the vote, claiming 17 seats.
The victory is a major milestone for Sinn Fein, which has long been linked to the Irish Republican Army, a paramilitary group that used bombs and bullets to try to take Northern Ireland out of U.K. rule during decades of violence involving Irish republican militants, Protestant Loyalist paramilitaries and the U.K. army and police.
“Today ushers in a new era,” Sinn Fein vice-president Michelle O’Neill said shortly before the final results were announced. “Irrespective of religious, political or social backgrounds, my commitment is to make politics work.”