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Theresa May takes the initiative, but at what cost to Northern Ireland talks process?

By Adrian Rutherford

Battle lines have been drawn between Northern Ireland’s politicians after Theresa May stunned the country by calling a snap general election.

Voters will go to the polls on June 8 — the third election here in little over a year.

In a statement on the steps of Downing Street, the Prime Minister fired the starting gun on a seven-week campaign with a plea for voters to put their trust in her to deliver a good result from Brexit.

She claimed divisions at Westminster risked jeopardising the negotiations to pull the UK out of the European Union.

On a dramatic and fast-moving day in British politics:

  • Mrs May said the UK needed certainty, stability and strong leadership, warning: “The country is coming together but Westminster is not.”
  • Jeremy Corbyn declared Labour will back holding the election despite polls showing it was heading for meltdown at the ballot box.
  • Northern Ireland’s political leaders made their opening pitches, with Arlene Foster urging unionists to unite around the DUP.
  • Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill called on voters to reject Brexit and Tory-driven austerity.
  • Talks to resolve the Stormont crisis faced fresh uncertainty, amid speculation about a possible Assembly election on the same day.
  • Sources at Number 10 indicated the PM will refuse to take part in televised leader debates.

Yesterday’s announcement stunned Westminster. Mrs May and Number 10 had repeatedly insisted she would not seek a general election before the scheduled 2020 poll.

It is believed to have taken even Cabinet members by surprise. Senior ministers were only briefed before Mrs May’s address to the nation outside Number 10.

Yesterday the PM revealed the final decision to call an election was taken during a walking holiday in Snowdonia with husband Philip.

She told the Queen on Easter Monday before getting the full approval of the Cabinet yesterday morning.

Mrs May said: “I trust the British people. The British people gave the Government a job to do in terms of coming out of the European Union and I’m going to be asking the British people to put their trust in me in ensuring we deliver a success of that.”

The fresh election campaign in Northern Ireland, against a backdrop of great political instability, threatens to drive open further divisions between the already-polarised parties.

Mrs Foster called it an opportunity for unionists to “unite around a strong DUP that will advocate for them in Parliament”.

Mrs O’Neill, meanwhile, claimed it was a chance for voters to “oppose Brexit and reject Tory cuts and austerity”.

But there was anger from SDLP leader Colum Eastwood, who accused Mrs May of showing “disdain” for Northern Ireland by calling the election amid intense efforts to restore powersharing.

Secretary of State James Brokenshire pledged there will be no change in Stormont’s talks process.

“Discussions between the parties and the UK and Irish Governments will continue in accordance with the three-stranded approach,” he said. “The prospect of a forthcoming UK general election does not change this approach.”

Mr Brokenshire said he will fast-track laws through Parliament by early May if a deal can be reached.

Mrs May rejected suggestions she was simply seeking to take advantage of an opportunity to extend her lead at a time when polls put Conservatives as many as 21 points ahead of Labour, insisting an election now was “in the best long-term interests of this country”.

Speaking outside 10 Downing Street, the PM acknowledged she needed a stronger position in the Commons to secure her plans for the UK’s future outside the EU.

“Our opponents believe because the Government’s majority is so small that our resolve will weaken and that they can force us to change. They are wrong,” she said. “At this moment of enormous national significance there should be unity in Westminster, but instead there is division.

“The country is coming together, but Westminster is not.”

Under the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, general elections take place every five years, meaning Mrs May would have had to carry on until 2020 before the chance to strengthen her position.

In order to call the early election, she will need the support of two-thirds of the 650 MPs in the Commons, but Labour is expected to support her, as any Opposition would look weak if it did not agree to the chance to take office.

Mr Corbyn said Mrs May’s decision had given voters the chance “to vote for a Government that will put the interests of the majority first”.

Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron said the election provided an opportunity to block “a disastrous hard Brexit”.

The Commons vote on whether the general election can go ahead will follow a 90-minute debate today.

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