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Stormont crisis: Government rules out direct rule as Northern Ireland heads for fresh Assembly election

The UK Government has said it is not contemplating a return to direct rule in Northern Ireland after announcing a snap election in response to the collapse of Stormont's ruling executive.

Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire said his "absolute intent" was ensuring the survival of devolution amid a bitter row between former lead coalition partners Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionists.

The sun sets over Stormont on January 16, 2017 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)
The sun sets over Stormont on January 16, 2017 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)

There are fears a divisive election campaign will make a rapprochement even less likely, raising the spectre of a return to direct rule if a new administration cannot be formed within the required three weeks on the other side of the March 2 poll.

Acknowledging there was a tight timeframe to reach an accord, Mr Brokenshire insisted maintaining devolution was in the best interests of Northern Ireland.

"I am not contemplating anything other than devolved government - that is what I want to see here," he said.

He stressed the importance of continued dialogue between the feuding parties, even through the election campaign.

"I am concerned about the impact of a divisive election campaign," he said. "I do want to see an executive back in place fully functioning at the earliest opportunity."

Northern Ireland will now go to the polls just ten months after the last Assembly vote.

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.

Sinn Fein MLA Michelle O'Neill told the Assembly her party would only return to government if there was "real and meaningful change".

"The DUP have treated these institutions and sections of the community with contempt and arrogance," she said.

Mr McGuinness's decision to walk away automatically removed DUP leader Arlene Foster from her position as first minister - as executive structures dictate one cannot govern without the other.

On Monday, the DUP renominated Mrs Foster to the post. That was rendered meaningless by Sinn Fein's subsequent refusal to renominate its own incumbent at the head of the executive.

Mrs Foster, who developed the ill-fated RHI scheme when economy minister, claimed the electorate did not want or need an election and accused Sinn Fein of triggering it 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.

Theresa May phoned Mrs Foster and Mr McGuinness early on Monday in a last-ditch effort to prevent the collapse of the devolved administration. But her intervention was to no avail.

The Stormont Assembly will limp on until it is formally dissolved next week, when the election campaign will begin in earnest.

In other developments on another day of drama at Stormont:

  • Rebel former DUP economy minister Jonathan Bell, already suspended by the party for speaking out on the RHI furore, used Assembly privilege to claim two DUP special advisers thwarted his attempts to rein in the scheme's costs because of their "extensive interests in the poultry industry". The DUP branded the claims "outrageous, untrue and unfounded mud-slinging".

    Read more Jonathan Bell: DUP's 'poultry industry interests stopped RHI scrutiny'
     
  • Sinn Fein refused to table a planned motion of no confidence in DUP Assembly Speaker Robin Newton after his party used a contentious voting mechanism - a petition of concern - to ensure the motion fell.
     
  • DUP Communities minister Paul Givan secured Assembly approval for a housing benefit payment scheme that he previously claimed was under threat as a result of the Stormont crisis.

 

Former Deputy Northern Ireland First Minister Martin McGuinness walks through the Great Hall at Stormont after failing to nominate a candidate for the role of Deputy First Minister on January 16, 2017 in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
Former Deputy Northern Ireland First Minister Martin McGuinness walks through the Great Hall at Stormont after failing to nominate a candidate for the role of Deputy First Minister on January 16, 2017 in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
Nigel Dodds and Arlene Foster in the Great Hall of Stormont on 16th January 2017 (Photo - Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph)
Mike Nesbitt and the Ulster Unionist Party in the Great Hall of Stormont on 16th January 2017 (Photo - Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph)
Nigel Dodds and Arlene Foster and the DUP Party in the Great Hall of Stormont on 16th January 2017 (Photo - Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph)
Pacemaker Press 15/01/2017 Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness arrives at Storming on Monday morning. The secretary of state is set to call Assembly elections later if Sinn Féin fails to nominate a deputy first minister to replace Martin McGuinness. He quit when DUP leader Arlene Foster refused to stand aside as first minister while a botched energy scheme was investigated. Because they hold a joint office, the resignation automatically put the DUP leader out of her job. Elections must be called if the positions are vacant for seven days. Pic Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker
Jonathan Bell in the Great Hall of Stormont on 16th January 2017 (Photo - Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph)
Arlene Foster and the DUP Party in the Great Hall of Stormont on 16th January 2017 (Photo - Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph)
Martin McGuinness leaving the Great Hall following an Assembly Plenary Session at Stormont in Belfast where Sinn Fein declined to re-nominate a Stormont deputy first minister in a move set to collapse the powersharing executive in Belfast and trigger a snap election.. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Monday January 16, 2017. See PA story ULSTER RHI. Photo credit should read: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Arlene Foster and the DUP Party in the Great Hall of Stormont on 16th January 2017 (Photo - Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph)
Arlene Foster and the DUP Party in the Great Hall of Stormont on 16th January 2017 (Photo - Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph)
Nigel Dodds and Arlene Foster in the Great Hall of Stormont on 16th January 2017 (Photo - Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph)
Naomi Long and the Alliance Party in the Great Hall of Stormont on 16th January 2017 (Photo - Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph)
Arlene Foster and the DUP Party in the Great Hall of Stormont on 16th January 2017 (Photo - Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph)
Video grab taken from the Northern Ireland Assembly of Robin Newton speaking during an Assembly Plenary Session at Stormont in Belfast. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Monday January 16, 2017. See PA story ULSTER RHI. Photo credit should read: PA Wire
Video grab taken from the Northern Ireland Assembly of Speaker Robin Newton during an Assembly Plenary Session at Stormont in Belfast. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Monday January 16, 2017. See PA story ULSTER RHI. Photo credit should read: PA Wire
Video grab taken from the Northern Ireland Assembly of Michelle O'Neill speaking during an Assembly Plenary Session at Stormont in Belfast. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Monday January 16, 2017. See PA story ULSTER RHI. Photo credit should read: PA Wire

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