Northern Ireland holds snap assembly election

By Maureen Cofflard and Douglas Dalby, AFP

BELFAST, Northern Ireland — Northern Ireland was voting Thursday in snap elections to resolve a political crisis fueled by bad blood and Brexit, which is testing the delicate peace in the British province. Long-simmering tensions boiled over in January when the Sinn Fein party — once the political arm of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) — brought down the province’s semi-autonomous government. That triggered fresh elections in the Northern Ireland Assembly, a legislature in Belfast in which representatives of once-warring communities have shared power on and off since a 1998 peace deal. Observers predict a similar outcome to the May 2016 elections, in which the pro-British Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) won slightly more seats than the pro-Irish republican Sinn Fein. If the two parties cannot resolve their differences and form an administration within three weeks, the assembly’s executive could be suspended and the province fully governed from London. Martin McGuinness, a former IRA commander who became Northern Ireland’s deputy first minister, resigned in January in protest over a botched green energy subsidy scheme. It had been instigated by First Minister Arlene Foster, head of the DUP, when she was economy minister. Deeply engrained historical enmity was also exacerbated by the June vote for Britain to leave the European Union, which the DUP supported but Sinn Fein opposed. ‘Find a way forward’ McGuinness is not standing again due to ill health, and his successor as Sinn Fein’s leader in Northern Ireland, Michelle O’Neill, has signaled a possible way out. “We’re up for going back into government but only on the basis of equality, respect and integrity,” she told AFP on Wednesday.

“We cannot go into government with Arlene Foster as first or deputy first minister while there is a shadow hanging over her, but that doesn’t mean we can’t find a way forward.” Foster has appealed for unionists to resist Sinn Fein’s demands for her to stand aside pending an investigation into the energy scheme. “If you feed a crocodile it will keep coming back for more,” she told a party rally. On the streets of Belfast, there was disillusionment over the scandal. “I’m just fed up with all the corruption and all the scandals to do with the heating and all the rest of it,” civil servant Catherine Aouad said. Annette Martin, who works for the Marie Curie charity, said: “I’m not sure I expect an awful lot, to be honest, but I still wanted to make my vote.” Brexit and the Border

Prime Minister Theresa May has said Britain will leave the EU’s single market and likely the customs union after Brexit, which would make the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland the UK’s only land border with the European Union.