BELFAST (AFP) - Northern Ireland's bickering leaders came under pressure Sunday (May 8) to unite in a new government after the Irish nationalist party Sinn Fein secured an unprecedented election win.
Once the political wing of the paramilitary IRA, Sinn Fein won enough seats in the devolved legislature to nominate its Northern Ireland leader Michelle O'Neill as first minister.
The result from Thursday's election for the Stormont assembly marked a potentially seismic shift, a century after Northern Ireland was carved out as a Protestant fiefdom under British rule.
Ms O'Neill said the result "ushers in a new era" for the divided territory, and Sinn Fein said it wanted a referendum on reuniting Ireland within five years.
But only the UK government can grant a referendum, and Justice Secretary Dominic Raab noted that 58 per cent of voters had backed parties committed to the UK union or the constitutional status quo.
Northern Ireland's people all want "stability", he told Sky News, demanding that the European Union agree to changes to post-Brexit trading rules that have become anathema to pro-UK unionists.
"I think it's equally clear that that stability is being put at risk, imperilled, by the problems with the Northern Ireland Protocol," Mr Raab said.
Equally for the UK government, he said, "We want to see an executive formed" in Belfast, for "the parties to come together to provide the people with that stability."
The Irish and US governments also urged Northern Ireland's leaders to form a new power-sharing executive, under the terms of a 1998 peace deal that ended three decades of bloodshed.
With all 90 Stormont seats filled from Thursday's proportional voting, Sinn Fein won 27 seats, ahead of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) on 25 and the cross-community Alliance party on 17.
"The people have spoken, and our job is now to turn up. I expect others to turn up also," Ms O'Neill told reporters.
But DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson demanded Prime Minister Boris Johnson first "deliver on his word" and scrap the protocol, which unionists fear is casting Northern Ireland adrift from the UK.
Mr Raab said the government preferred still to negotiate a solution with the EU - but reserved the right to act unilaterally to protect intra-UK trade "and frankly, the constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom".
While Sinn Fein will get to nominate a first minister, Northern Ireland's government can only form under the 1998 deal if the DUP agrees to take part and serve in the role of deputy first minister.
Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis was expected to meet the party chiefs in Belfast on Monday. The parties will have 24 weeks to resolve their differences or face a new election.
"You could easily see everyone taking the full six months for negotiation," commented Katy Hayward, professor of political sociology at Queen's University Belfast.
She noted the DUP wants the protocol removed, Sinn Fein has longstanding demands to protect the Irish language, and the Alliance wants an overhaul at Stormont to recognise the rise of the middle ground - none of which can be easily achieved.
"But given the urgency of crises in the cost of living and healthcare, we do need an executive formed and then can think of bigger adjustments to the (1998) Good Friday Agreement when we're in a better place," Prof Hayward told AFP.