Sinn Fein overtook the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in voting for the province’s 90-member national Assembly, winning the most seats, 27, and securing the highest share of first preference votes. This compares with 24 seats for the DUP and 17 for the Alliance Party.
The counting of votes is still underway on Saturday, with 88 out of the 90 seats counted, according to the Electoral Office for Northern Ireland.
Sinn Fein is now in pole position to install a prime minister for the first time. The party is opposed to Northern Ireland being part of the United Kingdom and is in favor of a united Ireland.
“The preparation for constitutional change in Ireland needs to begin now,” Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald told CNN on Friday evening as results began to emerge. “We need to be alive to the fact that change is underway.
“It is my absolute determination that that change will be entirely peaceful,” she added.
That day remains a distant prospect despite the results of Thursday’s vote. But Sinn Fein’s emergence as Northern Ireland’s largest party nevertheless could force a conversation around a so-called border poll.
Sinn Fein was once closely associated with the IRA, which fought a bloody three-decade military campaign to end British rule and unite the island of Ireland, though the party has since positioned itself as a grassroots left-wing political party focused on social issues north and south of the border.
Its success in the Northern Irish poll on Thursday was aided by a slide from the DUP, which has held the post of first minister since 2007 and briefly propped up Theresa May’s Conservative government in Westminster from 2017.