BELFAST — Sinn Fein on Friday was projected to become the first nationalist party to dominate in Northern Ireland, while Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party lost hundreds of seats in local elections seen partly as a referendum on his leadership.
The final count may not be known until Saturday or later, but Sinn Fein was on track to win the largest number of seats in the Northern Ireland assembly — and along with that the power to name party leader Michelle O’Neill as First Minister in the regional power-sharing government.
The idea that Sinn Fein — once the political wing of the Irish Republican Army — could triumph in these elections would have been unthinkable a generation ago. But the party has benefited from demographic shifts, and it has expanded its appeal by focusing on bread-and-butter issues while downplaying its long-term aspirations for the unification of Ireland.
Katy Hayward, a political sociologist from Queen’s University Belfast, said that if the Northern Ireland legislature is “dominated by a nationalist party that wants to see, in effect, the end of Northern Ireland, it really would be symbolically significant.”
A Sinn Fein win wouldn’t have immediate implications for unification. Any changes to the status of Northern Ireland would require referendums on both sides of the border, and public support for a unified island isn’t yet there.
But Sinn Fein hopes it can build support over time. Jonathan Tonge, a politics expert at the University of Liverpool, said the election results certainly boost the odds.
“There won’t be a border poll on Irish unity soon, but there will be one day,” he said.
The more immediate question is whether the new power-sharing executive will actually come together. The Democratic Unionist Party — the main party animated by the idea that Northern Ireland should remain part of United Kingdom — has been boycotting, citing its distress over the post-Brexit trade arrangement brokered between Johnson and the European Union.
Also being tallied Friday were the results from council and mayoral elections in England, Scotland and Wales. The general election isn’t until 2024, and local election turnout is often low. But these midterms are often an indicator of how the main political parties are doing. And this was the first big test for Johnson’s Conservatives since the emergence of a cost-of-living crisis and a scandal known as “Partygate.”
The government faces three ongoing investigations into boozy gatherings that flouted pandemic lockdown rules, while the prime minister was urging citizens to stay home and not mix with people from multiple households. Johnson is the first sitting prime minister found to have broken the law.
Analysts said Johnson was badly bruised, but not mortally wounded in the local elections.
“It’s not a knock out blow,” said Will Jennings, a politics expert at the University of Southampton. “It hasn’t been great for the Conservatives, but it’s not yet bad enough to force them into action, so Boris lives to fight another day.”
There were some calls at the local and regional level for Johnson to step down, but there did not appear to be a cascade of letters from Conservative lawmakers pushing for a no-confidence vote.
Still, Jennings said Conservatives can’t just shrug this off as midterm blues and hope things will improve. “Governments suffer losses and can go on to make gains, but the government is facing a very bleak economic situation,” he said. “Voters will feel significant economic pain in next year or two.”
As of Friday evening, Conservatives had lost more than 300 seats in England and suffered significant losses in Scotland, too. Some of those losses were in places where they had been dominant for years.
In London, the Labour Party seized two flagship councils — the borough of Wandsworth, a Conservative stronghold that was a favorite of former prime minister Margaret Thatcher, and the borough of Westminster, which had voted Conservative since its creation in 1964. (Westminster is where Johnson cast his ballot on Thursday, with his dog, Dilyn, along for the outing.)
Gavin Barwell, the former chief of staff for Johnson’s Conservative predecessor, Theresa May, called the London results “catastrophic” and said they should be a “wake-up call for the Conservative Party.”
But while the ruling Tories lost ground, there wasn’t a sole beneficiary. The spoils were shared between Labour, the main opposition party, as well as the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party.
The pattern of Conservatives doing better in postindustrial towns in the north of England and Labour doing better in major cities held. And Labour failed to make substantial inroads in the “red wall” of northern England that would make it more competitive in the next general election. These are areas where, in 2019, Johnson’s Conservatives won huge support from former Labour voters who were pro-Brexit.
“We had a tough night in some parts of the country,” Johnson conceded to broadcasters. “But on the other hand, in other parts of the country you are still seeing Conservatives going forward and making quite remarkable gains in places that haven’t voted Conservative for a long time, if ever.”
Keir Starmer, the Labour Party leader, hailed the early Friday results as a “big turning point for us.” Later on Friday, British police said they would investigate Starmer over a potential breach of covid lockdown rules. He has come under pressure following footage of him drinking a beer indoors with colleagues last April. He denies any rules were broken.
Adam reported from London.