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Northern Ireland may face two elections, admits Brokenshire

By Noel McAdam

There could be two elections in the wake of the crisis forced by Martin McGuinness's resignation as Deputy First Minister, the Secretary of State has said.

James Brokenshire told MPs the rules state a second contest must be called if no Executive is formed from the first.

In a House of Commons statement, he also admitted a new ballot - with the date expected to be mid-March - was "highly likely".

Facing his first major crisis since taking over from Theresa Villiers after the General Election last May, Mr Brokenshire admitted that tensions beyond the problems raised by the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) had been exposed.

"This has led to a breakdown in the trust (and) co-operation that is necessary for the power-sharing institutions to function effectively," the Secretary of State told MPs.

However, Mr Brokenshire also offered to convene discussions between the parties ahead of an election date decision, which is expected next Monday.

"Over the coming hours and days I will continue to explore whether any basis exists to resolve these issues prior to me having to fulfil my statutory duty to call an election," he said.

Laurence Robertson, the chair of Westminster's Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, said fresh elections would return the parties in the same general numbers without addressing the fundamental issues.

He also suggested that the Government look at how the power-sharing institutions are constructed, so the continual threat of collapse can be removed.

DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds voiced deep regret at Sinn Fein "single-handedly" causing the collapse of the Executive, and said it was ironic that the outcome of Mr McGuinness's resignation was a delay to any investigation into RHI.

Former SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell, meanwhile, said RHI had been the "last straw", but the major factor behind the current crisis was the vote for Brexit, which had led to "considerable political confusion" and "damage to the Northern Ireland economy".

Mr Brokenshire replied that he did not share the South Belfast MP's analysis and insisted that there would be opportunities for Northern Ireland in the aftermath of Brexit.

The Secretary of State added that the RHI was "an entirely devolved matter in which the UK Government has no direct role".

"But I do believe it is imperative that a comprehensive, transparent and impartial inquiry into the development and implementation of the scheme needs to be established as quickly as possible," he said.

"Effective action needs to be taken by the Executive and Assembly to control costs."

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