Northern Ireland will hold a snap vote on March 2 to elect a new assembly following the collapse of the region’s power-sharing government, Britain has announced.
The elections were triggered as a Monday deadline passed for Catholic socialists Sinn Fein who refused to fill their top post in the two-party government, denouncing their Democratic Unionist partners as corrupt and bigoted.
James Brokenshire, Britain’s secretary of state for Northern Ireland, said he had no power to compel the opposite sides in Northern Ireland’s nearly decade-old government coalition to keep working together as the territory’s 1998 peace accord intended.
“No one should underestimate the challenge faced to the political institutions here in Northern Ireland and what is at stake,” said Brokenshire.
He said the assembly would dissolve on January 26 and urged its feuding parties to mend fences.
“We need to ensure that this election is conducted in such a way that does not divide … that seeks to bring people back together,” he said.
“We are obviously concerned about the impact of a divisive election campaign.”
Northern Ireland’s power-sharing executive and assembly were formed after a 1998 peace deal that ended three decades of violence between pro-British unionists and Irish nationalists who wanted to join the Republic of Ireland, and allowed border checkpoints to be dismantled.
In 2007, a government led jointly by the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein came to power and, until recently, had governed the region with few blow-ups.
The political crisis began when Martin McGuinness, a veteran Sinn Fein politician, resigned as deputy first minister last week over his power-sharing partner’s handling of a controversial energy scheme that could cost the province hundreds of millions of pounds.
Al Jazeera’s Neave Barker, reporting from Belfast, said the British government had no choice but to call the early elections.
“Under the protocol of the power-sharing agreement when one of the two leaders of the coalition resigns, the other one automatically has to go also,” he said.
He also said the reason of the dispute seemed to be deeper than the disagreement over the energy scheme.
“Over the last few months, the relationship between the rival leaders has really soured,” he said. “This seems to be more about the way they have felt about working together.”
The political crisis is overshadowing the bigger issue the province is facing following Britain’s decision to leave the European Union, Barker said.
Northern Ireland is widely seen as the part of the UK most exposed to Brexit as it could upend trade and the free movement of people across its land border with the Irish Republic
Overall, 52 percent of the UK voted in favour of leaving the EU in June’s referendum, but 56 percent of those voting in Northern Ireland backed remaining.
British Prime Minister Theresa May has said she plans to launch the EU exit procedure by the end of March.