Britain’s Northern Ireland minister is expected later on Monday to call an early election in the province, a week after the resignation of Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness effectively toppled its eight-month-old devolved government.
McGuinness stood down in protest at First Minister Arlene Foster’s handling of a controversial green-energy scheme, risking political paralysis in the region just as Britain is preparing for talks to leave the European Union.
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British Prime Minister Theresa May made a last-ditch attempt to persuade McGuiness’ Irish nationalist Sinn Fein and Foster’s pro-British Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to overcome the impasse. May stressed that political stability would give the province a stronger voice in Britain’s Brexit preparations, the prime minister’s spokeswoman said.
However, Sinn Fein’s refusal to name a replacement for McGuiness now means May’s Northern Irish minister James Brokenshire must dissolve the province’s assembly from 1700 GMT. Sinn Fein has already begun picking election candidates.
“Sinn Fein will not renominate for the position of deputy first minister. It is now up to the people to have their say,” Sinn Fein minister Michelle O’Neill told Northern Ireland’s assembly. Sinn Fein, once the political arm of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), has governed with the rival DUP for 10 years under power-sharing arrangements that put an end to three decades of sectarian violence in the province. They were voted back into power as the two largest parties just eight months ago.
McGuinness, who is to announce shortly whether he will lead Sinn Fein into the election after a break from some duties due to illness, has suggested the vote will be followed by lengthy renegotiations on the terms of the power-sharing government.
Sinn Fein’s demands are likely to include funding additional rights for Irish language speakers and the lesbian and gay community, which the DUP has blocked, and also inquiries into deaths in the “Troubles”. “I would like to think that they will be sorted out because Arlene Foster, if they are not sorted out, will never be the first minister again,” Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams told Irish national broadcaster RTE.
Power-sharing formed a key part of the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement, which ended the conflict between mainly Catholic Irish nationalists seeking a united Ireland and Protestant pro-British unionists wanting to remain part of the United Kingdom. Some 3,600 people were killed in those years. Northern Ireland is widely seen as the part of the UK most exposed to Brexit as it may upend trade or the free movement of people across the land border with the Irish Republic. Attempts to rebuild power-sharing will likely begin just as May begins exit talks with the EU before the end of March.
A failure to form a new executive also risks the first suspension of the province’s political institutions in 15 years and the return of its 1.8 million people to direct rule from London. Brokenshire said he was not contemplating such a move but a senior DUP member warned it may be necessary.
“After an election, I think we’re in for a prolonged period of direct rule from Westminster whilst negotiations take place between the political parties,” Jeffrey Donaldson told Northern Ireland’s Newsletter newspaper.