Northern Ireland assembly elections announced
Elections to a new Northern Ireland assembly will take place on 2 March, James Brokenshire has announced. The Northern Ireland secretary was forced to call the poll after 5pm on Monday when it became clear there would be no 11th-hour deal to bring the Democratic Unionist party and Sinn Féin together to save power sharing in the region.
Brokenshire was obliged by law to declare an election date after the deadline this evening, drawning a curtain over nearly a decade of cross-community coalitions between unionists and nationalists.
The present assembly will sit until 26 January, when it will be dissolved. The new election takes place just 10 months after the previous one, which resulted in a joint Sinn Féin-Democratic Unionist party government.
The devolved administration fell after a row over a bungled green energy scheme and the Democratic Unionist first minister’s refusal to temporarily stand down from her post.
Sinn Féin earlier on Monday refused to nominate a new deputy first minister in the Stormont parliament, thus triggering an election. The Democratic Unionists had once again put forward Arlene Foster as first minister.
But under the complex rules of power sharing in the province, a government could not survive if the main political representatives of one section of the community refused to participate in the administration.
Announcing the election, the Northern Ireland secretary said: “I am now obliged under relevant legislation to propose a date for the next Northern Ireland assembly election. The election seeks to have the views of the future of Northern Ireland and bring people back together again and assures those lines of communications remain open.”
Just before the collapse of the power-sharing coalition between Sinn Féin and the DUP, Theresa May telephoned Martin McGuinness and Arlene Foster to encourage them to reach a last-minute deal to save the devolved institutions. May told them that they needed to do so to strengthen Northern Ireland’s voice in the forthcoming Brexit negotiations with the EU.
A spokeswoman for the prime minister said: “She spoke to both Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness to encourage them to use what time was left today to try to find a resolution to the situation in Northern Ireland, outlining the importance of finding a way forward – particularly in the context of wanting to make sure that Northern Ireland has a voice in the UK’s exit from the European Union as we approach the critical period before triggering article 50.”
Her appeal failed to sway Sinn Féin, and the party declined to nominate a deputy first minister. Shortly afterwards, Foster appeared in Stormont’s Great Hall surrounded by DUP stalwarts including several of the party’s MPs at Westminster. She said: “Northern Ireland does not need an election; it needs stable government.”
The first minister said Sinn Féin had forced the election on Northern Ireland. “They have forced an election that risks Northern Ireland’s future and stability and which suits nobody but themselves,” she said.
If the DUP and Sinn Féin are once again returned as the two largest parties in the new assembly, the chances of them forming a fresh cross-community government appear at this stage to be remote. The atmosphere between the two parties remains toxic.
McGuinness, who is in ill health and being treated for a rare condition that attacks the heart and other vital organs, resigned as deputy first minister last Monday. He took the action in protest at Foster’s refusal to step aside while a public inquiry is held into the renewable heat incentive (RHI), an energy scheme whose costs have spiralled out of control.
It is unclear whether McGuinness will stand himself as a candidate in the forthcoming electoral contest. While Sinn Féin is keen for his name to be on the party’s slate in Foyle, it is understood that his family are concerned about his health and the impact a bruising election campaign could have on it.
If McGuinness does not stand again, one of the frontrunners to succeed him is Michelle O’Neill, the Sinn Féin health minister in the outgoing government. On Monday she highlighted the difficulties in piecing together a new power sharing arrangement with the DUP.
“Sinn Féin will only be part of institutions which work and deliver for all in the community,” she said. “There can be no return to the status quo. If something is broken, you stop and you fix it.”
The cross-community Alliance party said it wanted to keep the focus during the campaign on allegations of corruption and cronyism associated with the RHI scheme as well as other scandals. Naomi Long, the Alliance leader, said: “Our party isn’t to blame for the snap election called as a result of the DUP’s and Sinn Féin’s mess.
“But unlike some, we are not running scared of an election. We will be facing the people confident – and offering the electorate an alternative to the secrecy, corruption and cronyism that they are sick of at Stormont.”
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