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6 March 2017

Theresa May should turn her focus to Northern Ireland

The province's post-election divisions could be the greatest threat to the Union.

By Patrick Maguire

Good morning. The results of Northern Ireland’s snap assembly election are in – and the big losers are Arlene Foster and the DUP. Having held a comfortable 10-seat lead over Sinn Fein after last year’s election, Foster’s once-dominant party is now just one seat ahead of the nationalists, now led by Michelle O’Neill after Martin McGuinness’ resignation as deputy first minister and subsequent retirement on health grounds.

The consequences of this realignment are bigger than they may first appear. Foster’s intransigence over the “cash for ash” scandal that brought her government down – and her needlessly hard lines on contentious cross-community issues such as the legal status of the Irish language – has not been vindicated. For the first time since the establishment of the assembly in 1998, the unionist bloc has been deprived of an overall majority – and the DUP’s diminished return of 28 seats means they no longer have recourse to the assembly’s petition of concern mechanism (its threshold is 30 seats), which they used to block the passage of equal marriage.

Foster has, by any metric, failed decisively. While there has yet to be an open challenge to her leadership, several senior DUP figures have issued what are, in effect, coded invitations for her to stand down. Whether or not she remains at the helm will in part determine whether we see a new executive formed anytime soon: Sinn Fein has made Foster’s departure, at least while cash for ash is investigated, one of their red lines. But many in the DUP are loth to effectively allow Sinn Fein power of veto over their new leader. For their part, the republicans potentially have much to gain from direct rule and a period of strategic bargaining.

The two parties have three weeks to negotiate a settlement – which, frankly, looks pretty unlikely. After this point James Brokenshire, the Northern Ireland secretary, will rule directly or call another election.

Some at Stormont and Westminster believe that, outlandish though the prospect may seem, the DUP are attracted to the idea of forcing Brokenshire to call third assembly election in the space of a year. The abject performance of the much-diminished Ulster Unionist Party has given their bigger rivals hope that, should there be another rancorous orange-on-green election in May, they will be able to wipe them out once and for all by consolidating the unionist vote.

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Peter Hain – the last secretary of state to govern from London – warns in the Guardian that, if Brokenshire fails to rise to this challenge, Stormont could be mothballed for more than five years.

Today the leader columns speak of the need to save the devolution settlement with varying degrees of urgency. But London’s risible lack of interest in these elections – and Northern Ireland itself – could yet backfire. Existential questions over the future of the post-Brexit border and peace process remain. Sinn Fein, who like 56 per cent of Northern Ireland’s population backed continued EU membership, and are talking up a poll on reunification. If May really wants to keep the Union together, she ought to turn away from Edinburgh and towards Belfast.