Future of powersharing at stake in NI election, Brokenshire says

Fears that divisive campaign could lead to return of direct rule from London

Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire told MPs on Tuesday that the future of powersharing was at stake after he was forced to announce an election on Monday. Photograph: Hayoung Jeon/EPA.

Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire told MPs on Tuesday that the future of powersharing was at stake after he was forced to announce an election on Monday. Photograph: Hayoung Jeon/EPA.

 

The Northern Ireland Secretary has called for a respectful election in Northern Ireland after former first minister Arlene Foster predicted a brutal contest .

James Brokenshire told MPs in the House of Commons that the future of powersharing was at stake after he was forced to announce an election on Monday.

His move came after Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness resigned as deputy first minister in a feud with coalition partners the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) over the botched ‘cash for ash’ renewable energy scheme.

Mr Brokenshire said the election was “about the future of Northern Ireland and its political institutions. Not just the Assembly but all of the arrangements that have been put in place to reflect relationships throughout these islands.

“That is why it will be vital for the campaign to be conducted respectfully and in ways that do not simply exacerbate tensions and division...Once the campaign is over we need to be in a position to re-establish strong and stable devolved government in Northern Ireland.”

There are fears that a divisive election campaign will make a rapprochement between the DUP and Sinn Féin even less likely. Such an outcome would raise the prospect of a return to direct rule from London in Northern Ireland if a new administration cannot be formed within three weeks of the March 2nd election.

Over the past decade Northern Ireland has enjoyed the longest run of unbroken devolved government since before the demise of the old Stormont Parliament in 1972.

‘Bumps’

Mr Brokenshire noted: “It has not always been easy, with more than a few bumps in the road but with strong leadership issues that might once have brought the institutions down have been resolved through dialogue.”

He added: “Mr Speaker, Northern Ireland has come so far and we cannot allow the gains that have been made to be derailed.

“So, yes, we have an election. But once this election is over we need to be in a position to continue building a Northern Ireland that works for everyone.”

The country will go to the polls to elect a reduced 90 Stormont Assembly members (MLAs) just 10 months after the last vote. The number of MLAs is being reduced from 108.

The election was triggered by the fracturing of a powersharing deal between Sinn Féin and the DUP.

Mr McGuinness quit last week citing irreconcilable differences with the DUP.

The deadline for Sinn Féin to renominate to the vacant post before an election had to be called passed on Monday evening.

Mr McGuinness’s resignation was precipitated by the renewable heat incentive scandal - a botched green energy scheme overseen by DUP ministers set to cost Stormont £490 million - but that row has also reignited a range of other vexed disputes dividing the coalition.

PA