UK minister says early Northern Ireland elections likely
11 January 2017 – Britain’s minister for Northern Ireland told lawmakers today an early election in the U.K. territory “looks highly likely” after the sudden resignation of a key member of the local power-sharing government.
Secretary of State for Northern Ireland James Brokenshire told the House of Commons the situation in the devolved U.K. region was “grave” and said the British government was treating it with the “utmost seriousness”.
The political situation in Belfast entered the U.K.’s national agenda following the resignation of Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness on Monday evening.
McGuinness stepped down over a financial mismanagement scandal involving his opposite number, First Minister Arlene Foster.
Power-sharing rules in the divided territory mean if the Deputy First Minister stands down, the First Minister is also forced out of their position.
Meanwhile, First Minister Arlene Foster said she is willing to hold talks with Sinn Fein to prevent the collapse of power sharing.
Calling McGuinness’s resignation “not principal”, Foster, the Democratic Unionist party leader added that she was ready to support a public inquiry into the botched green energy scheme.
Foster underlined that she was not afraid of election for a new assembly.
Brokenshire reminded parliament that McGuinness’s resignation would affect Foster’s role but added that “she is able to carry some limited functions”.
“Under the terms of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 as amended by the St Andrews Agreement Act 2007 the position is clear,” Brokenshire said.
“Should the offices of First and Deputy First Minister not be filled within seven days from Mr. McGuinness’s resignation then it falls to me as Secretary of State to set a date for an Assembly election,” he added.
The resignation of the Sinn Fein Deputy First Minster was in apparent protest at the handling of a botched energy scheme which could cost the taxpayer £490 million ($597 million).
Other tensions between McGuinness’s Irish nationalist Sinn Fein party and Foster’s pro-British Democratic Unionists were cited in his resignation letter.
Brokenshire said an inquiry into the controversial energy scheme would be needed.