Tuesday 23 May 2017

Northern Ireland election to take place in seven weeks as government collapses

Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire speaking inside his offices in Stormont House, Belfast where he called a snap Stormont Assembly election for March 2. Picture: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire speaking inside his offices in Stormont House, Belfast where he called a snap Stormont Assembly election for March 2. Picture: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness speak to journalists as they leave Number 10 Downing Street in London, last year. Photo: Dylan Martinez/Reuters
Independent.ie Newsdesk

Independent.ie Newsdesk

Stormont Assembly election will take place on March 2, the Northern Ireland Secretary has announced.

James Brokenshire called the poll minutes after a deadline elapsed that effectively triggered the collapse of the powersharing executive in Belfast.

Mr Brokenshire was obliged by law to set an election date after Sinn Fein brought down the institutions by refusing to replace Martin McGuinness as deputy first minister.

Mr McGuinness quit last week citing irreconcilable differences with his long-term Democratic Unionist partners in government.

The deadline for Sinn Fein to re-nominate a minister passed at 5pm on Monday.

Mr Brokenshire said: "No one should underestimate the challenge faced to the political institutions here in Northern Ireland and what is at stake.

"While it is inevitable that debate during an election period will be intense, 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 after that poll.

"The Government continues to stand firmly behind its commitment to the Belfast Agreement and its successors, and our responsibilities to safeguard political stability.

Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire speaking in Stormont House, Belfast where he called a snap Stormont Assembly election for March 2. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire speaking in Stormont House, Belfast where he called a snap Stormont Assembly election for March 2. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire

"We will continue to do all that we can to find a way forward and secure the continuation of devolved government and I will make a further statement in Parliament tomorrow."

Tonight Taoiseach Enda Kenny confirmed that he had spoken with Prime Minister Theresa May by phone.

In a statement, released from Mr Kenny's office, it was confirmed that the pair discussed the current situation in Northern Ireland.

"They both expressed the hope that the election campaign would be respectful, noting that following the election the Northern Ireland parties would once again have to engage on the various challenges they face.

"The Taoiseach and Prime Minister repeated their desire to see the institutions established under the Good Friday Agreement operating effectively, and in particular to have a fully functioning Executive in place as soon as possible.

"The Prime Minister also took the opportunity to discuss the speech on Brexit which she plans to deliver tomorrow. The Taoiseach reiterated key concerns for Ireland, covering the economic and trading relationship, the common travel area, and the Northern Ireland Peace Process including border issues."

Responding to the announcement Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan said he spoke with Secretary of State Brokenshire on this matter this afternoon.

"we agreed that both Governments should continue to work closely together in the weeks to come, looking ahead to the post-election period, when a new power-sharing Executive will need to be formed.

“In this regard, as the Assembly election campaign gets underway, I reiterate my call to all parties in the election to act responsibly in word and deed so that the political institutions of the Good Friday Agreement will not be damaged in the longer term.

“These institutions, including the Assembly and the Executive, are indispensable for addressing the needs and concerns of people in Northern Ireland, including peace, prosperity, reconciliation and indeed the considerable challenges posted by the upcoming Brexit negotiations.

“Any election campaign will see different points of view raised, but voters are entitled to expect that their political representatives will come together respectfully, in accordance with the principles of the Good Friday Agreement, to deliver solutions for all of the people of Northern Ireland. I urge all parties contesting the Assembly election to bear that duty in mind in the weeks ahead.

“As a co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement, the Irish Government will continue to work with the British Government and the political parties to advance political stability, reconciliation and economic prosperity in Northern Ireland.”

Mr McGuinness's resignation was precipitated by the renewable heat incentive (RHI) scandal - a botched eco-scheme set to cost Stormont £490 million - but that row has also reignited a range of other bitter disputes dividing the coalition.

Sinn Fein MLA Michelle O'Neill told the Assembly: "The DUP have treated these institutions and sections of the community with contempt and arrogance.

"Today, Sinn Fein will not re-nominate for the position of deputy first minister."

Ms O'Neill said Sinn Fein would only return to government if there was "real and meaningful change".

Mr McGuinness's resignation automatically removed DUP leader Arlene Foster from her position as first minister - as executive structures dictate one cannot govern without the other.

On Monday, the DUP renominated Mrs Foster to the post. That was rendered meaningless by Sinn Fein's subsequent refusal to renominate its own incumbent at the head of the executive.

Mrs Foster claimed the electorate did not want or need an election.

She accused Sinn Fein of triggering a poll because they did not like the outcome of last May's vote.

"They have forced an election that risks Northern Ireland's future and stability, and which suits nobody but themselves," she said.

Theresa May phoned Mrs Foster and Mr McGuinness early on Monday in a last-ditch effort to prevent the collapse of the devolved administration. But her intervention was to no avail.

The Stormont Assembly will limp on until it is formally dissolved next week, when the election campaign will begin in earnest.

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