Stormont election highly probable, says Northern Ireland Secretary

Secretary of State James Brokenshire
Secretary of State James Brokenshire

An election for Stormont's power-sharing institutions is still highly likely, the Northern Ireland Secretary has said.

James Brokenshire warned that a poll would be potentially divisive and make it harder to bring people together afterwards.

On Thursday, a Democratic Unionist minister reversed his controversial decision to cut an Irish language initiative in the midst of Stormont's eco-boiler scandal which helped prompt Sinn Fein to pull the plug on the devolved administration.

Mr Brokenshire said: "The reality remains, the high probability remains, that we are heading towards an election.

"The focus is on encouraging the political parties to work together, to talk with each other, but it is that task that we have ahead of us in the coming hours, in the coming days, the likelihood is that we are heading towards that election and the clock is certainly ticking down towards the start of next week when an election would become inevitable if there is no change from the current situation."

He said he did not want to pre-judge what the outcome of the vote might be.

"I see an election potentially being divisive, potentially actually pulling people apart and making it harder to bring people together at the end of that election.

"So that is why I think it is important to use all efforts that we can at the moment to see what can be done, to unite people, to see where there is common ground, to see if an election can be avoided and also to see where we can actually see that work to bring parties closer together rather than seeing greater separation."

Communities minister Paul Givan's decision to cut a £50,000 bursary to pay for children to visit Irish-speaking communities - the Gaeltacht - infuriated Sinn Fein and has been seen as a key factor in the republican party's decision to pull the plug on the power-sharing institutions.

In a tweet on Thursday morning, Mr Givan said: "My decision on the Liofa Bursary Scheme was not a political decision.

"I have now identified the necessary funding to advance this scheme."

The development has been interpreted by some as a DUP olive branch to Sinn Fein as devolution teeters on the brink.

While the looming collapse of the ruling executive was triggered by the renewable heat incentive (RHI) affair - a green heating scandal that has left Stormont with a £490 million bill - other disputes between the two main parties have been reignited by the furore.

Sinn Fein cited DUP "disrespect" towards the Irish language as one of the main reasons it had walked away.

Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams branded Mr Givan an "ignoramus" for his original decision to cut the bursary.

The move came as Alliance Party leader Naomi Long claimed the DUP had approached a party colleague and asked them to join lobbying of Mr Brokenshire to postpone calling a snap election.

"They simply asked if we would be willing to work on a cross-party basis to request to the Secretary of State that, rather than have an election, he suspend the institutions so we could have talks," she said.

Martin McGuinness's decision to resign as deputy first minister on Monday lit the fuse on Stormont's implosion. His departure forced DUP leader Arlene Foster from her role as first minister and triggered a procedural chain of events that will end with the calling of an election on Monday, if Sinn Fein does not reappoint a deputy first minister by then.

After Monday's meltdown, the DUP and Sinn Fein had also been at odds on whether mitigation payments to support households losing out under the Government's so-called "bedroom tax" could be paid.

Mr Givan claimed they could not without the approval of the now paralysed executive, but Sinn Fein finance minister Mairtin O Muilleoir insisted Mr Givan did have the authority.

In a tweet on Thursday, Mr Givan said: "Continuing to work with officials on finding a solution on bedroom tax."

Mrs Foster has offered to hold talks with Sinn Fein to avert an executive crash.

While Mr McGuinness has indicated a willingness to meet Mrs Foster to discuss the crisis, Sinn Fein has ruled out a substantive negotiation process ahead of an election.