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Sinn Féin on Track to Pull Off Historic Victory in Northern Ireland




Sinn Féin appeared on course to pull off predictions of a historic victory in Northern Ireland’s elections in what would mark the first time the nationalist party, committed to Irish reunification, has outperformed unionists in the region.

Michelle O’Neill, Sinn Féin’s leader in Northern Ireland, looked relaxed on Friday as she easily held her seat in mid-Ulster, to cheers from supporters. “I feel very positive,” she declared. “We said this was an election about the future. It is going to be potentially a historic election.”

The centrist Alliance party was also confident it had delivered a strong showing in Northern Ireland’s elections held on Thursday, underscoring how many voters no longer accept traditional tribal unionist and nationalist divisions.

Full results are expected to trickle in throughout Friday and into the weekend.

If pre-election opinion polls are correct, a Sinn Féin win would relegate the Democratic Unionist party, the largest party committed to preserving the region’s place as part of the UK, to a humiliating second place behind a party long associated with the republican paramilitary IRA.

But whatever the outcome for the 90 seats in the Stormont assembly, when the final tally becomes clear, one thing appears certain: the region’s devolved executive is unlikely to return for months.

The DUP has said it will boycott the power-sharing body unless post-Brexit trading rules for the region, which put a customs border in the Irish Sea, are scrapped.

A DUP refusal to form a new executive next week would open up the prospect of months of political limbo in Northern Ireland and even another election at the end of this year or early in 2023. Ministers would stay on in a caretaker capacity but no new policy could be enacted.

“I voted for Sinn Féin,” said Rose McKenna, 67, a retired social worker who has backed the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour party and the Alliance in past elections.

“It’s more about who you don’t want in than who you do. We need to get [the executive] back and do something to fix this place. I’m fed up of the old arguments.”

Retired social worker Rose McKenna voted for Sinn Féin. ‘It’s more about who you don’t want in than who you do. We need to get [the executive] back and do something to fix this place’ © Paul Mcerlane/FT

The Alliance, meanwhile, was confident it would leapfrog the SDLP and Ulster Unionist party to move into third place from fifth in the last elections in 2017.

Doug Beattie, leader of the UUP party, which had been the fourth largest in the outgoing assembly; and Greens party leader Clare Bailey, were under pressure to retain their seats.

In many cases, final results will be determined by how voters assign their second and subsequent preferences under Northern Ireland’s proportional representation voting system.

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, who was elected to assembly, will have to resign his seat at Westminster to enter Stormont. He told the Financial Times he was “always confident”. His party could benefit if voters from the small, hardline Traditional Unionist Voice party transfer their preferences to it.

While O’Neill focused her campaign message on the cost of living crisis, Donaldson has vowed not to take his party back into the region’s executive as long as the Northern Ireland protocol remains in place.

But even some DUP voters criticised his stance. “They should go back. You should always talk everything out,” said John Madden, 63, a labourer, carrying bags stuffed with red, white and blue bunting and Union Jacks for a street party for Queen Elizabeth II’s platinum jubilee in June.

UK prime minister Boris Johnson, who suffered bruising defeats in local elections in Britain on Thursday, has been preparing legislation to allow the UK to unilaterally rip up parts of the protocol, potentially triggering a trade war with Brussels.

Still, many voters expect the DUP to boycott the power sharing body. “There’s going to be an empty building up there [at Stormont],” said Alisha Hill, a 37-year-old hairdresser and single mum who did not vote. “I think our politics are pretty laughable here.”

Many voters expect the DUP to boycott the power-sharing body. Hairdresser Alisha Hill says, ‘There’s going to be an empty building up there [at Stormont]’ © Paul Mcerlane/FT

Alliance leader Naomi Long said the expected rise in support for her party highlighted the need to move beyond traditional divisions.

Under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which halted the three-decades-long conflict between republicans seeking to claim Northern Ireland and loyalists battling to remain British, Northern Ireland’s main unionist and nationalist communities must share power.

“Twenty-four years on from the Good Friday Agreement, we need to get beyond just managing divisions, we need to get to the point where we’re resolving them,” Long said.

Politicians elected to Stormont must next week officially designate themselves as “unionist”, “nationalist” or “other”. Even if the Alliance does well, the “other” camp is still expected to remain considerably smaller than the two traditional communities.

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Iceland Helps Families This Half Term With Free School Meal Initiative – With Added Bonus




The promotion launched this week to help “ease pressure” on families over half-term.

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Scholz Airs Frustration Over Allies’ Stance on Tanks for Ukraine





Chancellor Olaf Scholz has admonished Germany’s allies for failing to deliver tanks to Ukraine after having spent months urging Berlin to do so.

Speaking at the Munich Security Conference, the German leader who was long criticised for his hesitancy in arming Ukraine, was asked if he was now pushing other nations to provide the heavy weaponry they had promised.

Scholz replied: “That’s a question I have to ask to others, especially those who were so much urging [me] to act.”

The three-day gathering was opened by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who compared his country to the biblical David in a fight to the death with Russia’s Goliath.

“It’s not just about Ukraine,” Zelenskyy said in his speech via video link. “The point is that Goliath must lose and there is no alternative to this.”

He said the west must pick up the pace of its support for Ukraine. “Delayed decisions are a resource that Putin’s dictatorship lives on.”

Scholz’s comments highlighted growing German frustration with its allies. The chancellor faced months of pressure to set up and lead a consortium of countries capable of supplying German-made Leopard main battle tanks to Ukraine. But in the weeks after Berlin finally agreed to send 14 Leopard 2s, few other countries have committed any of their own stockpiles of the tank.

In his conference address, Scholz urged “all those who can supply main battle tanks to really do so”. He said German defence minister Boris Pistorius and foreign minister Annalena Baerbock would be using the Munich conference to encourage allies to fulfil their commitments on tanks.

Germany would, he added, “do what it can to make this decision easier for our partners — say by training Ukrainian soldiers here in Germany, or providing support in terms of supplies and logistics”.

In a further indication of international differences on Ukraine, French President Emmanuel Macron acknowledged that the west had failed to win backing from countries ranging from Africa to Latin America and Asia.

“I am struck by how we have lost the trust of the global south,” Macron said to an audience made up of top officials from both developed and developing countries. He argued that the world’s response to the war showed the need to rebalance the global order and make it more inclusive.

Macron called Russia’s invasion of Ukraine a “neocolonialist and imperialist” attack that “broke all taboos” and called on leaders of the global south to join the west in condemning the war.

While western countries have rallied to help Ukraine, many Asian, Latin American and African countries have been at best lukewarm in their support for Kyiv in what they see as a European war that is far from their daily concerns. The French president insisted that was not the case.

“To close your eyes [to the invasion] is to legitimise neocolonialism and imperialism around the world,” Macron told the conference. “It is a vision of the world that has broken all taboos, not only violating the UN charter . . . but also murders, rapes, war crimes and the systemic destruction of civilian infrastructure.”

He added that the global south would be needed to eventually seal a sustainable end to the conflict.

First, however, the west needed “to intensify our support and our efforts to the resistance of the Ukrainian people and its army and help them to launch a counter-offensive which alone can allow credible negotiations, determined by Ukraine”, Macron said.

More than 40 heads of state and 60 ministers are attending the so-called Davos of defence, which has also attracted the biggest US congressional delegation in the event’s history. Kamala Harris, the US vice-president, will be taking part in the event that runs until Sunday and is expected to focus heavily on the war in Ukraine and its implications for the global security order.

Last year’s conference was held just days before Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, and world leaders used it to urge President Vladimir Putin to desist from his war plans — pleas that fell on deaf ears. No Russian officials have been invited this year.

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Russia’s ‘big’ Ukraine Offensive Advancing in ‘metres Not Kilometres’, Says UK Defence Secretary





The Russian army is suffering huge losses in Ukraine, shows no sign it has improved its “meat grinder” tactics and is struggling to sustain a stuttering offensive that is “advancing, if at all, in metres not kilometres”, Britain’s defence secretary Ben Wallace said on Friday.

Despite fears that Russia is poised to launch a huge attack around the first anniversary of its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Wallace said there was “no evidence of a big massing of Russian forces” akin to the assault on February 24 last year.

Speaking to the Financial Times on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference, Wallace said the best Moscow had managed so far was a series of probing attacks along the frontline reinforced with recruits following a recent mass mobilisation. But he said those assaults had only led to high Russian casualties.

He added that Kyiv’s western allies were “more resolved than ever” to help Ukraine repel Russian forces and one clear sign was a strengthening of support from the US, which is now “committed to seeing the conflict through to the end”.

“There is no evidence to date of a great, big Russian offensive,” Wallace said. “What we have seen is an advance on all fronts, but at the expense of thousands of lives . . . We should actually question the assertion that they [the Russians] can go on.”

There has also been a shift in attitude about military aid among Kyiv’s western allies. This time last year, he said, they were debating whether to send anti-tank missiles to Kyiv. Now they are sending western main battle tanks.

“What has changed is that the US has decided to be more assertive,” Wallace said, pointing to the almost $8bn of military aid Washington has committed this year.

“Just think about it: we [western allies] have convened twice in the past three weeks [to discuss military aid], at the Ramstein [US air base in Germany] and at the Nato defence ministers meeting this week. That is a big change.”

One bridge that Kyiv’s allies have not yet crossed, however, is the provision of western fighter jets to Ukraine. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy made an eloquent plea for “wings for freedom” during an unexpected visit to London earlier this month.

But Wallace cautioned such supplies were still a long way off and that the modern fighter jet training the UK had offered to Ukrainian pilots was a “long-term resilience measure for after the war when Ukraine needs to defend itself”.

Wallace’s assessment of the state of the battlefield comes as Moscow’s full-scale invasion approaches its first anniversary next week. Since the start of the war, more than 180,000 Russian troops had been killed or wounded and, according to US estimates, two-thirds of the army’s tanks had been lost, he said.

Despite these losses, Wallace said there was no sign that the Russian army had changed its approach. He cited reports that 3,000 Russian soldiers had died during a three-day attack last week on the southern Ukrainian town of Vuhledar.

“Russian recruits are still being shoved into the meat grinder,” Wallace said. “And I am not sure that is sustainable, even for Russia, because 180,000 people have wives, mothers, sisters and friends and it becomes impossible for the scale of that loss to be hidden from the Russian people.”

Western officials also believe that Russia is struggling to source weapons and other materiel for its war effort. They cite the long gaps between its missile and drone attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure, and “active rationing” of shells for Russian artillery on the front line.

Kyiv’s western allies are similarly struggling to maintain supplies of artillery shells and other munitions and weaponry to Ukraine.

Wallace said that, while Ukraine might be suffering some shortages, this was a timing issue and Kyiv’s western backers had no strategic problem in continuing to supply Ukraine’s war effort.

“There’s always been a sense of shortages on [Ukraine’s] front line, but I don’t see any sign of strategic shortages . . . although there is a bit of a time lag” in getting supplies through, Wallace said.

The challenge, he added, was for Ukrainian forces to be precise in their use of weaponry and to continue fighting using western methods. “Do you need 100 artillery shells to blow up a Russian position, or just five? If you can be accurate, you don’t need 100 shells,” he said.

“Russia still has significant forces at its disposal,” Wallace said. “But what we have discovered is that when they muster them, they get whacked . . . They’re struggling.”

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