The Irish nationalist party, Sinn Fein, was widely expected to win the most seats in elections for the Northern Ireland legislature on Thursday, an outcome that would represent an extraordinary coming-of-age for a political party that many still associate with years of paramilitary violence.
It would also be a momentous shift in Northern Ireland, one that could upend the power-sharing arrangements that have kept a fragile peace for two decades, since the signing of the Good Friday peace agreement.
In polls this past week, Sinn Fein held a lead of two to six percentage points over the Democratic Unionist Party, which favors Northern Ireland’s current status as part of the United Kingdom. The results are expected by Saturday.
Sinn Fein has run a campaign that emphasizes kitchen-table concerns like the high cost of living and the need for better health care — and that plays down the party’s committed commitment to Irish unification, a legacy of its ties to the Irish Republican Army.
Irish unification, party leaders say, is an over-the-horizon issue, over which Sinn Fein has limited control. It is up to the British government to call a referendum on whether Northern Ireland should stay part of the United Kingdom or join the Republic of Ireland.
The only immediate effect of a Sinn Fein victory would be the right to name the first minister in the next government. The unionists, who have splintered into three parties, could still end up with the largest bloc of votes, according to political analysts.
“I hope that political unionism, when they meet this democratic test next week, will accept the vote from the people, no matter what that is,” said John Finucane, a Sinn Fein member of the British Parliament who is running the party’s campaign. “To paint this in an us-versus-them context, post election, is potentially dangerous.”