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Sinn Fein Makes Big Gains, Reshuffling Political Landscape In Northern Ireland

A cyclist rides past a mural on the Catholic Falls Road in Belfast, Northern Ireland, on Saturday after results were finalized in the province's snap election.

When the dust finally settled Saturday on Northern Ireland's snap assembly election, it became clear a new political reality now awaits voters there. After an exceedingly strong showing by Sinn Fein, Northern Ireland's government is split all but down the middle between Irish nationalists and their pro-British counterparts.

The snap election, which was held after Sinn Fein withdrew from a previous power-sharing agreement, handed the Democratic Unionist Party a victory at a steep price. Though the DUP won, the party did so with a historically narrow margin, earning 28 seats to Sinn Fein's 27 — a dramatic change from the 10-seat advantage the DUP held over Sinn Fein going into the election.

The result, which also handed fewer seats to a smattering of other parties, leaves unionists without a firm majority — and thus without veto power — for the first time since Ireland was partitioned in 1921, according to Reuters. The Irish Independent reports that all told, the assembly now has "40 unionists and 39 nationalist/republicans, with the remainder of the 90 MLAs affiliated to neither tradition."

Now, the province faces a fateful three weeks.

CNN notes that under the 1998 Good Friday peace accord, which ended three decades of sectarian violence in the region, Northern Ireland's government "must be run jointly by unionist and nationalist parties."

If the evenly matched parties should fail to reach a power-sharing agreement in the next three weeks — a prospect that many expect — power over Northern Ireland would be returned to British Parliament for the first time since 2007, says Reuters.

"If we can't do it in three weeks it could be a prolonged period of direct rule," the DUP's Jeffrey Donaldson told BBC Radio, according to Reuters. "In those circumstances, with Brexit coming down the road, we won't have our own administration to speak for us and offer the best prospect of delivering the kind of outcome we need."

As Joe Zefran reports for our Newscast unit, this was Northern Ireland's first assembly election since last year's Brexit vote, which determined that the U.K. would leave the European Union — a result most voters in Northern Ireland opposed.

Meanwhile, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams trumpeted Saturday's result as a sea change in the politics of Northern Ireland and a sign of hope for the party's goal of a united Ireland.

"The notion of a perpetual unionist majority has been demolished," Adams said, according to the BBC.

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