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Elections in Northern Ireland: Without a government and with political uncertainty, Irish citizens are voting today

Sinn Fein’s Vice President Michelle O’Neill (center) celebrates with party colleagues after being elected in Mid Ulster at the Medow Bank election count center in Magherafelt, Northern Ireland, on Friday / Peter Morrison/AP

Just over 1.3 million Northern Irish people are called to the polls on Thursday to vote in a local election marked by the crisis of self-government, suspended for more than a year due to differences over Brexit between nationalists and unionists. At stake are 462 posts in 11 British provincial councils, dominated by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), pro-British and representative of the Protestant community, and Sinn Fein, pro-Irish nationalist and representative of the Catholic community, the political branch of the former Irish Republican Army (IRA). These two parties would maintain their dominance over local administrations, but the polls also show a constant growth of the Alliance Party, a multi-confessional center-right formation; its growth was also proven in the elections for the Northern Ireland Assembly in May 2022, when he finished third, a vote in which Sinn Fein achieved a historic victory.

Since then, unionists’ rejection of post-Brexit trade provisions agreed by London and Brussels on Northern Ireland, originally included in the controversial Northern Ireland Protocol and revised in March by the “Windsor Framework Agreement”, have kept the government from Belfast. The DUP refuses to share the government with Sinn Fein, and it remains to be seen whether the unionists will settle this attitude at the polls or whether, on the contrary, it will coagulate the unionist vote in front of the nationalist bloc, to the detriment of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), which is the fourth force in the autonomous assembly. The electorate recognizes the fact that the powers of the 11 Northern Irish councils are very different from those of the regional institutions, paralyzed since February 2022, but the result of the election could reflect its degree of saturation with the main parties, unable to find solutions in a period of crisis caused by the increase in prices and the precarious situation of the sanitary system. Councils are responsible, among other things, for urban planning, waste collection, municipal taxes, or the management of cultural activities and local heritage, but they do not deal with social housing or areas such as transport and education. In a context of permanent political crisis, with nine suspensions of the autonomous government in the last 23 years, there are growing voices calling for more than a simple reform of the power-sharing institutions created by virtue of the 1998 peace agreement, which allows any of the unionist or nationalist blocs to veto the operation of the regional government. Thus, the Northern Ireland Local Government Association (NILGA) demands increased powers for local administrations, which they say account for less than 5% of public spending budgets, compared to 20% in England or 24% in Scotland or Wales. Polling stations open at 06:00 GMT on Thursday and close at 21:00 GMT on Friday, but the counting of votes will not start until Friday, and the final results could be announced on Saturday evening.

By Paul Bumman

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