BELFAST (AFP) – Northern Ireland will hold snap elections on March 2 in a bid to resolve its worst political crisis in years after the power-sharing executive collapsed on Monday.
Britain’s Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire announced the province’s assembly would dissolve on January 26 and urged its feuding parties to mend fences and keep devolved government going in Belfast.
The elections were triggered as a Monday deadline passed for Catholic socialists Sinn Fein to nominate a new deputy first minister to the executive to replace Martin McGuinness.
“No one should underestimate the challenge faced to the political institutions here in Northern Ireland and what is at stake,” Brokenshire said in Belfast.
“I would strongly encourage the political parties to conduct this election with a view to the future of Northern Ireland and re-establishing a partnership government at the earliest opportunity.”
If, after the elections, the largest Protestant British Unionist and Catholic Irish nationalist parties cannot agree to form a new executive, the province could end up being governed from London.
– Energy scheme behind crisis –
McGuinness resigned in protest over a botched green heating scheme, following weeks of tensions with the Protestant, conservative Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).
The scheme was instigated by First Minister Arlene Foster, leader of the DUP, when she was economy minister.
She repeatedly refused to step aside temporarily to allow an investigation into a scheme which could cost Northern Ireland taxpayers up to £490 million ($590 million, 560 million euros).
McGuinness quit last week, accusing Foster of “deep-seated arrogance”.
Foster said Monday that with the challenges of Brexit, a new US president and the volatile global economy, Northern Ireland needed stable government more than ever.
“NI does not need nor does its people want an election,” she said.
Sinn Fein “have forced an election that risks Northern Ireland’s future and its stability, and suits nobody apart from themselves.”
Sinn Fein warned they would not return to the executive without the DUP shifting ground.
“Today we have called time on the arrogance of the DUP… because we could no longer accept how these institutions were being treated with contempt,” assembly member Conor Murphy, backed by his colleagues, told reporters.
“There will be no return to these institutions… unless there is fundamental change to the approach of the DUP and how they do power-sharing.”
– Stalemate could linger –
Northern Ireland’s power-sharing executive and assembly were formed under the 1998 Belfast Agreement that effectively ended three decades of political violence in Northern Ireland.
The sectarian voting patterns that have always characterised elections in the province’s deeply divided society could remain intact in the next vote, bringing little prospect of an end to the political stalemate.
If the two biggest parties are returned as expected but the deadlock remains, then a second election could be called if there is failure to form an executive within three weeks of the vote.
The other option would be that Northern Ireland reverts to being governed from London.
The last period of direct rule ended in 2007.
In last year’s Brexit referendum, 56 percent of Northern Ireland voters favoured staying in the European Union compared to the UK-wide result of 52 percent choosing to leave.
The DUP was the only one of Northern Ireland’s main four political parties that called for the UK to leave the bloc.
British Prime Minister Theresa May has said she plans to launch the EU exit procedure by the end of March.
Brokenshire insisted that the snap elections would not have an impact on the timing of Britain launching the Article 50 departure process.
May spoke to Foster and McGuinness on Monday to stress the importance of finding a way forward, particularly to make sure Northern Ireland has a voice in the Article 50 process, the prime minister’s spokeswoman said.