Among the other likely big winners in the election was the Alliance, a centrist party that aligns with neither the nationalists nor the unionists. Analysts said the party’s candidates had drawn votes away from “soft unionists,” suggesting that the sectarian conflicts of the past are less resonant, particularly with younger voters, than everyday concerns like housing, jobs and health care.
“A plurality of voters in Northern Ireland say they are not nationalist or unionist,” said Katy Hayward, a professor of politics at Queen’s University in Belfast. “Now there seems to be momentum behind that view.”
“The overriding point Sinn Fein is making is, ‘We want to be in government,’” Professor Hayward said. “That is welcomed by people who are fed up by the dysfunction of the government.”
In so-called first-preference votes, which were reported on Friday evening, Sinn Fein won 250,388 votes, the Democratic Unionist Party won 184,002, and the Alliance won 116,681. Under the territory’s complicated voting system, candidates with the largest number of votes automatically win seats in the assembly.
But voters can express additional preferences, and seats are allocated according to the parties’ share of votes. That means that the final number of seats won by Sinn Fein and other parties will not be clear until Saturday.
For all the symbolism, the victory was as much about disarray in the unionist movement as the rise of the nationalists. Unionists have been divided and demoralized since Brexit, largely because the Democratic Unionist Party signed off on the British government’s negotiation of a hybrid trade status for Northern Ireland, known as the protocol.
The arrangement, which imposes border checks on goods flowing from mainland Britain to Northern Ireland, has triggered a backlash among unionist voters, many of whom complain that it has driven a wedge between them and the rest of the United Kingdom. The British government, eager to mollify the unionists, is weighing legislation that would throw out parts of the trade protocol. But it has yet to act.