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.
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.