Belfast Telegraph

Brokenshire says N Ireland gains must be held and urges clean election campaign

The Northern Ireland Secretary has said the gains of the past must not be derailed.

James Brokenshire called for a respectful election campaign and warned the future of Stormont powersharing was at stake.

He was forced to announce a poll on Monday after Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness resigned as deputy first minister in a feud with coalition partners the Democratic Unionists over a massively overspending eco-boiler scheme.

Mr Brokenshire said: "Northern Ireland has come so far and we cannot allow the gains that have been made to be derailed.

"So, yes, we have an election. But once this election is over we need to be in a position to continue building a Northern Ireland that works for everyone."

The former first minister at Stormont, Arlene Foster, had predicted the contest would be "brutal".

But Mr Brokenshire warned a divisive election could exacerbate tensions ahead of efforts to rebuild a coalition government.

"Once the campaign is over we need to be in a position to re-establish strong and stable devolved government in Northern Ireland."

There are fears that a polarised campaign will make a rapprochement between the DUP and Sinn Fein even less likely.

This raises the spectre of a return to direct rule from London if a new administration cannot be formed within the required three weeks on the other side of the March 2 poll.

Over the past decade Northern Ireland has enjoyed the longest run of unbroken devolved government since before the demise of the old Stormont Parliament in 1972.

Mr Brokenshire noted: "It has not always been easy, with more than a few bumps in the road but, with strong leadership, issues that might once have brought the institutions down have been resolved through dialogue."

The country will go to the polls to elect a reduced 90 Stormont Assembly members just 10 months after the last vote.

The move was triggered by the fracturing of a powersharing deal between Sinn Fein and the DUP.

Sinn Fein deputy first minister Martin McGuinness quit last week, citing irreconcilable differences with the DUP.

The deadline for Sinn Fein to renominate to the vacant post before an election had to be called passed on Monday evening.

Mr McGuinness's resignation was precipitated by the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scandal - a botched green energy scheme overseen by DUP ministers set to cost Stormont £490 million.

But that row has also reignited a range of other vexed disputes dividing the coalition.

Labour has said maintaining the Northern Ireland Assembly should be the number one priority as the party warned against a return to direct rule.

Shadow Northern Ireland secretary Dave Anderson said imposing direct control of the country from Westminster will serve no-one.

He urged Northern Ireland politicians to stand up and be counted amid the ongoing political crisis.

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