NI Secretary: There will be no return to direct rule

James Brokenshire warns that Assembly election will be divisive and polarising

File image of Northern Ireland Secretary of State James Brokenshire, who has said he is not contemplating a return to direct rule following NI Assembly elections. Photograph: Eric Luke

File image of Northern Ireland Secretary of State James Brokenshire, who has said he is not contemplating a return to direct rule following NI Assembly elections. Photograph: Eric Luke

 

The Northern Secretary said he is not contemplating a return to British direct rule after the impending Assembly elections are held.

While potentially there is still until 5 pm on Monday to find a compromise that could avert elections the British and Irish governments and the Northern parties believe there is little possibility of preventing the collapse of Stormont.

There is also a fear in Dublin, London and Belfast that even after the elections such is the level of disagreement between the DUP and Sinn Fein that it may be impossible to re-establish the Northern Executive and Assembly.

This has raised the possibility that Northern Ireland could be facing into a period of direct rule. Mr Brokenshire however said on Sunday he was “not thinking about” direct rule if there is political stalemate after the election

“I’m not contemplating any alternatives to devolved government in Northern Ireland. That is my absolute and resolute faith,” he told BBC television’s Andrew Marr Show.

“My responsibility is to see that we are working with each of the parties to ensure that we are not looking at greater division,” he said.

“My concern is that an election campaign will be divisive, will actually lead to greater distance between the parties.”

Mr Brokenshire said he would encourage Northern parties “to think about those big issues and how we build things back together again” after the elections. These are likely to be held in early March.

“My absolute focus is on how we bring the parties together,” he added. “There is a relatively short period of time after the election – about three weeks – to see an Executive being formed. What I’m focused on is that we maintain the institutions. It’s important that we are working together to see that people are focused on the great opportunities for Northern Ireland.”

Mr Brokenshire said that regardless of the expected dissolution of Stormont that the British government would press ahead with triggering Article 50 in March to take the UK out of the European Union.

“We’re not delaying the time table. We still remain absolutely committed to triggering article 50 by no later than the end of March,” he said.

He denied that because of the crisis Northern Ireland, which voted 56 per cent in favour of remaining in the EU, would have no input into the Brexit negotiations

“We are determined to get the best possible outcome for Northern Ireland through the negotiations ahead,” he said.

“It’s important to understand there have already been discussions with the Northern Ireland Executive, I’ve been reaching out to communities, reaching out to business, but we still have ministers in place,” he added.

The Assembly will sit on Monday with the expected early item of business the election of a first minister and deputy first minister. This likely will be a largely academic exercise as Sinn Féin has insisted it will not be nominating anybody to replace Martin McGuinness, who resigned on Monday.

If that position remains until 5 pm on Monday then Mr Brokenshire is obliged to call Assembly elections. Under legislation the earliest date for a poll is 43 days from Monday.

The apparent inevitability of elections was reflected in the fact that this weekend Sinn Féin is holding a number of conventions to select candidates to run in the election.