Sinn Féin set for historic triumph in Northern Ireland elections

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Sinn Féin are on course for a historic triumph in Thursday’s election for the Northern Ireland assembly at Stormont.

Victory for Sinn Féin  would make the party’s vice-president Michelle O’Neill first minister. It would be a massively “symbolic and psychological breakthrough for Irish nationalism given Northern Ireland was designed to have a permanent unionist majority”, writes Rory Caroll, the Guardian’s Ireland correspondent.

The latest poll shows Sinn Féin has extended its lead over the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) with the Irish News reporting the party “is on target to emerge as the comfortable winner of Thursday’s (May 5) assembly election.

The poll puts Sinn Féin on 26.6%, more than eight points ahead of the DUP on 18.2%. Worryingly for Sir Jeffrey Donaldson’s DUP, the Alliance party has drawn level with them in the poll on 18.2%.

Sinn Féin will be biggest party in Stormont

While other opinion polls agree Sinn Féin will be the largest party in Stormont, it will still fall far short of an overall majority. The Northern Ireland assembly’s 90 seats are elected by proportional representation, with 18 five-member constituencies.

Transfers of second votes will play a massive role in determining the success of the parties. Sinn Féin will be looking for transfers from nationalist SDLP (Social Democratcic and Labour Party) and Alliance party voters. Their campaign has avoided using traditional Irish republican tropes in hope, Caroll says, “to encourage some unionists to abstain or at least not transfer votes to the DUP”.

By comparison Donaldson’s DUP has been “convulsed” by Brexit and the Northern Ireland protocol. Donaldson has warned he will only enter into a power-sharing agreement with Sinn Féin if Boris Johnson’s deal with the EU, which created a border in the Irish Sea, is ditched or renegotiated.

Stormont’s power-sharing executive collapsed in February this year when DUP first minister Paul Givan resigned over the protocol which introduced custom checks on some goods entering Northern Ireland from Britain.

Naomi Long’s cross-community centrist Alliance party has seen a surge in support after positioning itself as an alternative for voters and Long has been very critical of the DUP’s stance on the protocol. Long accused the DUP of having no solutions to longstanding problems and said “no-one is losing sleep over” the protocol despite Donaldson’s party using Stormont as leverage to try and scrap it.

Long said Northern Ireland parties should instead be focusing on how to solve issues such as the cost of living crisis and NHS waiting lists.

O’Neill  – ‘real change is possible’

O’Neill has focused Sinn Féin’s campaign on the cost of living crisis while reiterating her priority to prove that politics works and to convince voters that “real change is possible”.

Unsurprisingly, Ireland’s unification remains a key policy for Sinn Féin and O’Neill has said it would be “reckless” not to plan for it.

More so, given the latest poll shows Sinn Féin “appears to be winning the hearts and minds of the post Good Friday Agreement generation”, states the Irish Times, “with more than one-third of younger voters [under 35s] giving the party their support”.

It is a scenario that DUP leader Donaldson has campaigned strongly on, warning unionists that a Sinn Féin victory would hasten calls for a border poll on Irish reunification.

Despite the historic potential of Thursday’s election, the BBC’s Northern Ireland correspondent Gareth Gordon has called the campaign ”the dullest” in years. “No-one wants to drop the ball and make a mistake they will not recover from,” wrote Gordon after the first leaders’ debate.

Rory Carroll said Sinn Féin ’s “softly-softly Stormont campaign” has echoed Labour’s 1997 general election campaign that swept Tony Blair to power.

Police investigate ‘vile attack’ on DUP’s Diane Forsythe

Meanwhile, police are investigating a defamatory message against DUP assembly member Diane Forsythe and said that “any identified suspects will be liable for prosecution.”

Forsythe has called for changes to the law to protect women after what she called a “vile attack” against her. Belfast Live report the message circulated is understood to contain “a pornographic video purporting to show” Forsythe.

The DUP’s director of elections, Gordon Lyons said Forsythe has been the “victim of a libellous and malicious campaign” and vowed the party will take separate legal action against anyone sharing the material.

“The latest misogynistic material which has been circulated is not only false but outrageously offensive,” said Lyons.

“This vile material is motivated by an inherent misogynistic prejudice and designed to undermine Diane’s character.

“The matter has been reported to the police but separate legal action will be taken against anyone sharing the material.”

Lyons added that Forsythe, 38, has been the victim of “a libellous and malicious campaign to damage her good name and an attempt to bully a young female candidate as she attempts to put herself forward for public service”.

Former DUP leader Arlene Foster tweeted: “Just so disgraceful but unfortunately not surprising.”

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