Sinn Fein celebrates win in 'defining election'

STORY: Sinn Fein, the former political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), hailed its first election win in Northern Ireland’s history on Saturday as a “defining moment” for the British-controlled region – ending a century of domination by pro-British parties.

Sinn Fein Vice President Michelle O’Neill.

"Today represents a very significant moment of change. It's a defining moment for our politics and for our people.”

Sinn Fein was ahead of the pro-British Democratic Unionist Party by 27 to 24 seats with two left to declare, making it the first Irish nationalist party to secure control of the assembly.

O’Neill said there should now be an “honest debate” around the party’s goal of unification with the Republic of Ireland.

"Let's have a healthy debate about what our future looks like, something that's better for each and every one of us, where we all have a valued place in our society.”

Party leader Mary Lou McDonald said she expects O’Neill to be appointed First Minister.

"This is a time for grown-up, sensible, partnership politics. That's what people want and we look forward to an executive being established. I look forward to Michelle O'Neill being nominated as First Minister to lead from the front."

While the largest party has the right to put forward a candidate for First Minister of the region's compulsory power-sharing government, disagreements with the DUP mean such an appointment could be months away.

The Sinn Fein victory will not change the region's status, as the referendum required to leave the United Kingdom is at the discretion of the British government and likely years away.

The party was long shunned by the political establishment on both sides of the Irish border for its links to IRA violence during three decades of fighting over Northern Ireland’s place within the UK.

Since a 1998 peace deal, it has reinvented itself to become the most popular party in the Republic of Ireland where it has carved out a successful base by campaigning on everyday issues such as the cost of living and healthcare.

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