Northern Ireland election is ‘very likely’, Minister says

Charlie Flanagan holds meetings with DUP’s Arlene Foster and members of Sinn Féin

 Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan speaks to the media at Stormont House in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan speaks to the media at Stormont House in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

 

Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan has accepted that an Assembly election in Northern Ireland is now “very likely”, following a series of meetings in Stormont on Thursday.

The Stormont Assembly effectively collapsed on Monday after Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness resigned as deputy first minister in protest at DUP first minister Arlene Foster’s refusal to step aside temporarily while an inquiry took place into the “cash for ash” renewable heat incentive scheme.

The joint terms of the office meant that DUP leader Arlene Foster also ceased to act as First Minister following Mr McGuiness’s resignation.

On Thursday, Mr Flanagan held separate meetings on the political crisis with Secretary of State for Northern Ireland James Brokenshire, DUP leader Arlene Foster and with a Sinn Féin delegation led by Martin McGuinness.

Speaking afterwards, Mr Flanagan seemed to indicate that a new Assembly election was inevitable, although he said there was a slim chance that it could be averted.

“I said on Monday that an election was likely. I can say now as we move towards the end of the week that that scenario seems even more likely.

“An election is much closer. There is a window of opportunity [to avert an election], albeit very narrow.”

The Sinn Féin delegation had already indicated that they would not be nominating a replacement for Martin McGuinness as Deputy First Minister, following his resignation from the position.

One of the party’s most senior members in the North, Michelle O’Neill, told reporters on Thursday that the party was now moving towards an election.

Asked had the party considered revisiting this stance following the announcement by outgoing DUP minister for communities Paul Givan that he was restoring the £50,000 Líofa grant, an Irish language bursary scheme, Ms O’Neill said the party’s decision stood.

“I welcome the fact that it has been restored, but quite frankly again [this is] too little, too late,” she told reporters, following the meeting with Mr Flanagan.

‘Useful’

Mr Flanagan described the meetings as “useful”.

He did not express a view on the SDLP’s suggestion on Wednesday that there should be joint authority between the British and Irish governments in the North, if Northern Ireland’s parties fail to form an Executive after a new Assembly election.

He said he was not contemplating failure in this regard.

“We in the Irish Government need to protect the institutions and also the integrity of the Good Friday Agreement.

“In that context, everybody engaged in politics in Northern Ireland over the next few weeks should reflect on the importance of that agreement,” he said.