Table of Contents
On May 5, 2022, voters in Northern Ireland—a part of the United Kingdom (UK)—went to the polls in elections for Northern Ireland’s Assembly, its regional legislature. In a landmark outcome, the all-Ireland Sinn Fein party—which supports a united Ireland—came in first place. The Assembly is a key institution in Northern Ireland’s devolved government, established by the 1998 peace agreement aimed at ending “the Troubles,” a 30-year sectarian conflict in which roughly 3,500 people died. The peace accord mandates power sharing in the devolved government between Northern Ireland’s two dominant communities: unionists, or Protestants who largely define themselves as British and support remaining part of the UK, and nationalists, or Catholics who consider themselves Irish and may favor a united Ireland. Despite a much-improved security situation since 1998, peace and stability in Northern Ireland remain fragile and of continued interest to many in Congress. (Also see CRS Report R46259, Northern Ireland: The Peace Process, Ongoing Challenges, and U.S. Interests).
Since 2007, Assembly elections have resulted in successive power-sharing governments led by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Fein. Nevertheless, distrust persists between these parties and between the unionist and nationalist communities more broadly. The DUP strongly supports Northern Ireland remaining in the UK, whereas Sinn Fein—traditionally associated with the paramilitary Irish Republican Army (IRA)—is staunchly nationalist. Disagreements caused a nearly three-year delay in forming a devolved government after the 2017 Assembly election.
The 2022 election occurred amid heightened tensions in Northern Ireland, due in part to divisions over Brexit—the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union (EU) in 2020. The DUP and other unionists are unhappy with the post-Brexit trade and customs arrangements for Northern Ireland (set out in a protocol to the UK-EU withdrawal agreement designed to maintain an open border on the island of Ireland and help preserve the peace process). The DUP views the protocol as dividing Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK and threatening the UK’s constitutional integrity. The post-Brexit rules also have resulted in some trade disruptions between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. Although Sinn Fein centered its election campaign on everyday concerns, such as the rising cost of living and health care, party officials maintain that “Brexit changes everything” and have called for a referendum on Irish unification (a border poll).