NI Assembly: with election over, what happens next
Northern Secretary James Brokenshire could introduce legislation to allow for period of negotiations
Stormont is seen through low cloud in Belfast. Photograph: Toby Melville/Reuters
Northern Ireland has elected a new Assembly where the DUP is marginally ahead of Sinn Féin, but it is uncertain when, and whether, it will formally get up and running.
Under legislation, the Assembly should meet some time next week and be obliged to form a new Northern Executive in the coming three weeks.
In normal circumstances, DUP leader Arlene Foster would be elected as First Minister and Sinn Féin Northern Ireland leader Michelle O’Neill elected as Deputy First Minister, after which and an Executive of Ministers would be formed.
This, however, was not a normal election.
It seems certain that all the parties, probably with the British and Irish governments in attendance, are about to enter a period of negotiations to determine if Stormont can be restored.
But it will be difficult considering that Sinn Féin so far has insisted it will not enter an Executive with DUP leader Arlene Foster as First Minister.
Sinn Féin leaders such as Gerry Adams and Michelle O’Neill have demanded that Ms Foster stay out of the Executive until the public inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme is completed.
But the inquiry is expected to take at least six months, and possibly up to a year. If the DUP sticks by its leader and insists that she is the only party member to take on the First Minister role, then deadlock seems inevitable.
Again, legally, if there is no new Executive after three weeks, then the Northern Secretary James Brokenshire is obliged to call fresh Assembly elections.
DUP and Sinn Féin politicians such as Sir Jeffrey Donaldson and Ms O’Neill have stated over Friday and Saturday that they are anxious to strike a deal. But whether that can happen with Sinn Féin insisting that Ms Foster stays out of the Executive is very problematic.
Therefore, the North could be in for a protracted period of negotiations, unless Sinn Féin or the DUP retreat from currently fixed positions, or some fudge is found.
Mr Brokenshire already has stated he is “not contemplating any alternatives to devolved government in Northern Ireland – that is my absolute and resolute faith”.
If a deal isn’t done in three weeks then he may feel compelled to introduce some legislation to further suspend Stormont to establish if through talks the parties can reach agreement.
If that is not possible then it would seem Northern Ireland will enter into a new period of direct rule from Westminster, possibly with some input from Dublin to keep nationalists happy.
There were hints on Saturday that if a deal is not done that Mr Brokenshire may create the conditions for lengthy talks. The former Northern secretary Theresa Villiers said on Saturday that parties should be given more time to agree a new powersharing deal.
She told BBC Radio Four’s Today programme: “The law at the moment requires a fresh election after three weeks if there is no coalition formed. And so I think it will be important for the Secretary of State to have legislation ready to give the parties more time. I think it would be a pity if they were launched back into yet another election just after three weeks.”