North enters new period of uncertainty as assembly election called

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood, DUP leader Arlene Foster and Sinn Féin's Martin McGuinness pictured at Stormont yesterday 
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood, DUP leader Arlene Foster and Sinn Féin's Martin McGuinness pictured at Stormont yesterday  SDLP leader Colum Eastwood, DUP leader Arlene Foster and Sinn Féin's Martin McGuinness pictured at Stormont yesterday 

NORTHERN Ireland last night entered a new period of uncertainty as Secretary of State James Brokenshire set the date for a fresh assembly election following the acrimonious collapse of the power-sharing executive.

After calling voters to the polls on Thursday March 2, Mr Brokenshire said the British government was not contemplating a return to direct rule and that it was his "absolute intent" to ensure devolution survives.

As widely expected, the Tory MP was forced to call a snap election after Sinn Féin declined to nominate a new deputy first minister a week after Martin McGuinness's resignation amid the the fall-out of the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal.

It means the assembly will sit for the last time next Wednesday, while ministers will remain in office until the eve of March's poll.

The number of Stormont MLAs will be reduced from the current 108 to 90 under the new mandate.

The forthcoming election campaign – the second inside 10 months – is expected to be particularly bitter but the secretary of state said he remains optimistic that he can broker a deal to retain devolution in its aftermath.

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

Following a day of drama and often frantic activity at Stormont, Taoiseach Enda Kenny and British Prime Minister Theresa May discussed the crisis by phone last night.

A spokesman for the taoiseach said the leaders regretted that the parties had been unable to reach agreement and voiced the hope that that the election campaign would be respectful.

Earlier Sinn Féin health minister Michelle O'Neill said her party had "striven to make these institutions work" but warned it 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.

DUP leader Arlene Foster claimed the public did not want or need an election and accused republicans of triggering the poll because they were unhappy with 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.

Ulster Unionist peer Lord Empey said the institutions had collapsed due to a "combination of political opportunism by Sinn Féin and gross incompetence and arrogance by the DUP".

"For a decade DUP and Sinn Féin have had uninterrupted opportunity to lead Northern Ireland to a better place – they have had the votes in the assembly to enable them to deliver their own policies, and since last May they have had no other party in the executive to inhibit their progress," he said.

"In other words, they have had every opportunity to deliver for the people and as we see today, they have failed miserably."

Fianna Fáil foreign affairs spokesman Darragh O'Brien urged the parties to remember the challenges facing the region.

"All this comes at a time when a cohesive and articulate executive in Northern Ireland is more important than at any other time – just as the British prime minister moves to trigger the UK's exit from the European Union," he said.

"As the last week has played out and as the rhetoric on all sides has hardened, it is impossible to escape the conclusion that once again, narrow party political considerations have won the day over responsible governance."

Civil society also voiced its disappointment at the confirmation of fresh elections.

Church of Ireland primate Dr Richard Clarke said he had written to the leaders of the main political parties, assuring them of his prayers at this difficult time.

Community Relations Council chairman Peter Osborne appealed to politicians to make the election campaign respectful, with language that is sensitive and generous rather than brutal and bitter.

“At some point this society needs to recapture the vision, hope and aspiration of the Good Friday Agreement," he said.

Fergal McFerran of student body NUS-USI said: "An increasing number of people look to Stormont and see nothing that relates to their lives in any meaningful way.

"We are treading dangerous territory where people question the value of devolution and its capacity to improve our society."