Belfast Telegraph

Assembly Election: Northern Ireland on course for direct rule after 'unjustifiable poll', claims Peter Robinson

By Noel McAdam

Northern Ireland is facing an almost inevitable return to direct rule, Peter Robinson has warned.

In a dramatic eve-of-poll intervention, the former First Minister said today's election was "unjustifiable" and could have been avoided. Urging political leaders to take a step back, Mr Robinson cautioned against a headlong rush towards the destruction of the power-sharing institutions.

"The structures, however imperfect, are all that stand between Northern Ireland and political isolation and impotence," he said.

"While the election is unstoppable the headlong rush into destruction is not."

Mr Robinson also took a swipe at UUP leader Mike Nesbitt for the "unconscionable error" of revealing he would give his second preference vote to the SDLP.

"To encourage the reduction of unionist Assembly Members and seek to increase the number of united Ireland-seeking SDLP MLAs would cause the founders of his party to turn in their graves," wrote Mr Robinson.

"It is the antithesis of traditional unionist thinking and a perversion of unionist values. Some have applauded his advice as hopeful 'new thinking' but this does not invest it with any merit. It is corrosive headline-grabbing folly." His warning came hours before voters cast their judgement in a snap poll which takes place against a backdrop of great political uncertainty.

On a dramatic final day of the campaign:

  • Mr Robinson revealed he had warned Arlene Foster that her honeymoon period as his successor would be short-lived, and that the critics would come for her;
  • He claimed that had Martin McGuinness been in good health, the breakdown would not have occurred;
  • Gerry Adams accused the DUP of running an "operation fear" strategy aimed at scaring the unionist electorate with Sinn Fein;
  • A High Court judge ruled companies on the botched Renewable Heat Incentive scheme can be publicly named;
  • It emerged viewing figures for the BBC's live election debate on Tuesday night were up more than 75% on last year, fuelling speculation of a huge turn-out.

A total of 228 candidates are contesting 90 seats across 18 constituencies. The election - the second in 10 months - was triggered by the collapse of the Assembly following the RHI scandal. Mrs Foster rejected calls to step down while a probe into the handling of the botched renewable energy scheme took place, with Mr McGuinness resigning as Deputy First Minister. The two elections are estimated to have cost around £10m.

Polling stations opened at 7am this morning with the first results expected tomorrow afternoon.

In a dramatic move yesterday, Mr Robinson broke more than a year of silence to warn that politics here was plunging towards stalemate, adding that he had concerns over the "very existence" of the Assembly and Executive.

With uncertainty over a new Executive being formed, Mr Robinson warned: "Almost inevitably, the Assembly will be suspended and Northern Ireland will be back to direct rule (or as Gerry Adams would describe it - Tory rule). I'm not convinced the electorate will want to endorse years of that!"

But last night Mr Adams said the DUP's "operation fear" strategy "boils down to scaring the unionist electorate with Sinn Fein".

Writing on his blog, Mr Adams also referred to accusations that Mrs Foster is "fixated" on attacking him. "With Martin so obviously ill, and Michelle (O'Neill) just new to the job, the DUP decided that this year I would make the perfect bogeyman," he added.

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