DUBLIN: Northern Ireland appears headed for snap elections at a time when Britain will be moving to leave the European Union, with no sign of ending a bitter political impasse before a key deadline on Monday.
The election would almost coincide with Britain’s launch of the formal procedure for leaving the EU and could either delay the talks or deprive Northern Ireland of a voice in them.
Following fruitless negotiations seeking to break the deadlock that led to the resignation of deputy first minister Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein last week, Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire signaled that elections appeared almost certain.
“Sinn Fein have indicated that they’re not intending to put a replacement forward. The clear indications are that we are moving towards an election,” Brokenshire told the BBC on Sunday.
The regional assembly will sit on Monday but if Sinn Fein fulfils its promise not to appoint a deputy first minister to replace McGuinness by 1700 GMT, Brokenshire will be forced to call an election which would have to be held within six weeks.
The crisis over a renewable energy subsidy scheme instigated by First Minister Arlene Foster of the pro-British Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) when she was economy minister has been simmering for months.
She repeatedly refused to step aside temporarily to allow an investigation into the botched scheme and McGuinness last week quit his position, accusing Foster of “deep-seated arrogance.”
Northern Ireland’s power-sharing executive and assembly was formed under the 1998 Belfast Agreement that effectively ended three decades of political violence in Northern Ireland.
The sectarian voting patterns that have always characterized elections in this deeply divided society could remain intact in the next vote, bringing little prospect of a 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 direct rule of Northern Ireland from the British parliament in London.
In the Brexit referendum, 56 percent in Northern Ireland voted to stay in the EU. The DUP was the only one of the main political parties which voted to leave the bloc.
In the absence of a local assembly, there is growing concern in the province that Northern Ireland will have little or no voice in the forthcoming Brexit negotiations. AFP