BELFAST (Reuters) – The British government will call a regional election in Northern Ireland if Irish nationalists and pro-British unionists fail to reach agreement to restore a power-sharing government by mid-January, a British minister said on Friday.
The British-run province has for almost three years been without a devolved executive, as required by the region’s 1998 peace deal, and the British government has set Jan. 13 as the latest of a series of deadlines to break the impasse.
Britain’s minister for Northern Ireland, Julian Smith, on Friday said he had decided to call regional elections if the talks fail rather than imposing direct rule from London, a move that would have infuriated the Irish government.
“If we don’t get (the Northern Ireland executive and legislature at) Stormont up and running by then, Northern Ireland citizens will then have both a general election in December and an assembly election soon after the 13th January,” Smith told journalists after a summit in Dublin with the leaders of Scotland, Wales and Ireland.
There would be no fresh extension to the talks deadline, he said.
Power-sharing collapsed in early 2016 when Irish nationalist party Sinn Fein withdrew from government saying it was not being treated as an equal partner by the Democratic Unionist Party, as required by the 1998 peace deal that largely ended three decades of violence.
Political deadlock has been complicated by the DUP’s role of propping up the British government in London and the impact of Britain’s exit from the European Union.
Talks are currently on hold until after a British general election on Dec. 12.
A regional election “would mark a failure of every politician in Northern Ireland and that is why I would encourage them as soon as this General election is over to sort out the outstanding issues and get back into power”, Smith said.
Reporting by Amanda Ferguson; Editing by Conor Humphries and Alex Richardson