BELFAST, Northern Ireland—Sinn Fein’s historic victory in Northern Ireland’s elections last week, which made it the largest party in the state’s devolved parliament, is significant in numerous ways. For the first time in Northern Ireland’s 101-year history, a nationalist party is now dominant in a state that was specifically designed to ensure a pro-Union majority.
But Sinn Fein is not simply a nationalist party. Having originated as the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, or IRA—the foremost paramilitary in the Northern Ireland conflict—it is a republican party that once supported armed struggle and vowed to destroy the very state it could now lead.
Of course, Sinn Fein has transformed itself since the IRA cease-fire of 1994, but the reunification of Ireland continues to be its raison d’être. And it appears closer than ever to realizing this aim, with polls consistently suggesting that it is also the most popular party in the Republic of Ireland. Thus, Sinn Fein may soon lead governments in both parts of Ireland, strengthening the resonance of its call for a referendum on reunification, but also allowing it to direct politics in the two jurisdictions in ways that would ease their integration.