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Sinn Fein is poised to become the 1st Irish nationalist party to lead the government

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

In Northern Ireland, the Sinn Fein party is seeking an historic election victory. Vote totals are still coming in, but a win would make it the first Irish Nationalist Party to lead the government. And that could pave the way for Northern Ireland to leave the U.K. Following the election for us is London-based reporter Willem Marx. Thanks for being here.

WILLEM MARX: Thanks for having me, Leila.

FADEL: So what reactions are you hearing this morning and what could this mean politically in Northern Ireland and the U.K.?

MARX: Well, the vote certification happened about 3 hours ago in Belfast and across Northern Ireland. That's now finished.

FADEL: OK.

MARX: The actual count is underway for the next few hours. So really, there's not actually been any major public statements from politicians here in the U.K. while they wait for more clarity on those results. But it's clear from what we do know that turnout has been relatively high, around 54%, and that's after a slightly unsettled few months in Northern Ireland's own politics.

The carefully constructed power sharing government collapsed when one of the major parties withdrew in February. And if Sinn Fein were to emerge from this election with a majority in the local legislature known as the Northern Ireland Assembly, it would be hard for the local executive power sharing to be reestablished. And without that executive in place, theoretically it would be U.K. authorities in Westminster, in London who could take charge of day-to-day governing.

But that would be both an unpopular move amongst people in Northern Ireland and also something that Prime Minister Boris Johnson's government has been pretty unwilling to do.

FADEL: Now, Sinn Fein was long linked to the IRA. Can you talk about how it built this popular support?

MARX: Well, partly, it's focusing on what you term bread and butter issues, but it's also partly a consequence in Northern Ireland of birthrates and changing demographics for the past couple of decades. Parties in favor of Northern Ireland remaining inside the rest of the U.K., known as unionists or loyalists, have held a majority in the Northern Ireland executive because their supporters, largely Protestants, were a bigger proportion of the population.

But that's changing. And that means that the largely Catholic segment of the population that supports Sinn Fein has continued to expand. And it's also worth noting the leading Unionist Party, the Democratic Unionist Party, has taken a very unpopular decision over issues around Brexit. That's helped to erode its own popular support a little, as well.

FADEL: Now, could this actually lead to the island of Ireland becoming one country?

MARX: Well, under the peace deal known as the Good Friday Agreement signed back in 1998, a referendum would need to be held among residents of Northern Ireland with another separate one held next door to the South in the Republic of Ireland. That would likely require Sinn Fein to control the levers of government both North and South of that border. And they're not yet a party in government to the South in the Republic of Ireland.

If a majority of people in both said they would like to see Ireland reunited, it's not beyond the realms of possibility one day. And in fact, the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland told voters ahead of these elections they think a Sinn Fein win would actually accelerate that process, Leila.

FADEL: So I'm sure we'll be speaking to you more as we know more about the results. Willem Marx covering the elections in Northern Ireland. He spoke to us from London. Thank you so much.

MARX: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.