Belfast Telegraph

Brokenshire calls for calm in campaign as battle for votes begins in Northern Ireland

By Noel McAdam

Northern Ireland was plunged into an a bruising Assembly election fight last night - with the future of devolution at stake.

Secretary of State James Brokenshire announced the poll will take place on Thursday, March 2 - just 10 months after the last election. And he appealed to the Stormont parties to conduct the election battle in "as calm an atmosphere as possible".

There was little sign of that, however, as former First Minister Arlene Foster accused Sinn Fein of putting the future stability of Northern Ireland at risk.

And Sinn Fein insisted there would be no return to Stormont without a successful outcome to negotiations after the March 2 poll. After that date, there is a three-week window for the devolved institutions to be restored.

At that point Mr Brokenshire will have to decide to go for a second election, or to go back to direct rule from Westminster.

It also emerged yesterday that Prime Minister Theresa May had phoned Mrs Foster and former Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness in a last-ditch effort to prevent the collapse of the devolved administration.

The Prime Minister's official spokeswoman said Mrs May wanted to make sure Northern Ireland has "a voice" in the run-up to the start of EU withdrawal talks - expected to be triggered by the end of March.

Last night, Mrs May also spoke by telephone to Taoiseach Enda Kenny. Afterwards, Mr Kenny's spokesman said the pair discussed the bitter fall-out and regretted that the DUP and Sinn Fein had been unable to reach agreement.

"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," he said.

As he made his announcement in Stormont House at teatime yesterday Mr Brokenshire emphasised his focus is on restoring devolution and he is "not considering" direct rule at this stage.

"No-one should underestimate the challenge faced to the political institutions here in Northern Ireland and what is at stake," he said. "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."

The Secretary of State also said representatives from the Executive will still be invited to attend meetings of the London Joint Ministerial Council on Brexit. But he said the Assembly crisis would have no impact on the timing of the Government's decision to trigger Article 50, the mechanism signalling the start of negotiations on exiting the EU.

Mr Brokenshire was legally obliged to call the election after Sinn Fein confirmed they would not renominate a Deputy First Minister. This effectively removed Arlene Foster as First Minister, since one cannot hold office without the other.

Mrs Foster 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.

But Sinn Fein MLA Conor Murphy said there would be no return of the Assembly and Executive until "we have equality, respect and an end to corruption in these institutions."

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