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Irish PM: Sinn Féin’s big Belfast win hasn’t advanced unity

BELFAST — Sinn Féin’s big win in the Northern Ireland Assembly election hasn’t advanced the goal of uniting the two parts of Ireland, Irish Prime Minister Micheál Martin argued Monday.

Martin — whose Fianna Fáil party will face an uphill battle against Sinn Féin whenever the Republic of Ireland next goes to the polls — said his opponents had barely mentioned the goal of Irish unification when campaigning north of the border.

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“We all support a united Ireland. Our party’s objective is a united Ireland. But it was striking, and this has to be said, that was not the mandate sought by Sinn Féin in the last few weeks,” Martin told RTÉ radio in Dublin.

Martin suggested that Sinn Féin had soft-pedaled the topic in favor of “bread and butter” issues because those broaden the party’s appeal, while calls for pushing Northern Ireland into the Republic of Ireland do not.

Polls consistently show most Northern Irish voters, including a minority of Irish nationalists, don’t want to leave the United Kingdom primarily for economic reasons, though such views have been undermined by Brexit.

“The whole [Sinn Féin] campaign was on cost of living, health, housing,” Martin said. “The border was buried in its documentation and its manifesto. And as soon as the votes are counted, it’s brought back to center stage.”

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald did talk up prospects for an Ireland-wide referendum following her party’s record performance in Northern Ireland, where the party won 29 percent of votes and overtook the Democratic Unionists for the first time.

And Sinn Féin’s 20-page manifesto does include a page on promoting unification. As the only Irish party contesting elections on both sides of the border, it is the only one trying to lead coalition governments in both Belfast and, perhaps soon, Dublin.

It won the most votes in the Irish Republic’s 2020 general election, mirroring its Belfast breakthrough. But the centrist old guard of southern politics, Martin’s Fianna Fáil and Deputy Prime Minister Leo Varadkar’s Fine Gael, agreed to form an unprecedented pact that kept Sinn Féin stuck in opposition. As part of their coalition agreement, Martin will swap jobs with Varadkar in December as their coalition seeks to survive to early 2025, by which time the next election must happen.

The latest opinion poll, published Sunday, shows Martin remains the most popular political leader in the Republic of Ireland – but only fractionally ahead of McDonald. The poll rated Sinn Féin’s popularity south of the border at 34 percent, approaching the combined total of Fianna Fáil (16 percent) and Fine Gael (23 percent).

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