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Northern Ireland faces direct rule from London as election inconclusive

Democratic Unionist Party leader Arlene Foster arrives to cast her vote at a polling station in Brookeborough, Northern Ireland, Thursday, March 2, 2017. Voting has begun Thursday in the British province of Northern Ireland to elect a new Stormont Assembly after the power-sharing government collapsed in January.

Northern Ireland's future has been thrown into uncertainty after a snap election failed to deliver a clear result to address deep divisions.

The final results of the election left the province's two largest parties, the Democratic Unionist Party and pro-republican Sinn Fein, with 28 and 27 seats respectively in the 90-seat parliament. No other party got more than a dozen seats. Although the election was held on Thursday it took until Saturday morning for all of the votes to be tallied under the province's complicated proportional representation system.

Under Northern Ireland's unique joint administration, the leaders of the two main parties must form a government and serve as First Minister and Deputy First Minister. But relations between the two parties have soured considerably in recent weeks and few experts believe an agreement is possible. If there is no deal, Northern Ireland would be ruled from London, which would be a major blow to the Good Friday Agreement which ended the Troubles in the late 1990s and brought relative stability to Northern Ireland.

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All of this uncertainty also comes as Britain is set to begin the process of leaving the European Union, something most people in Northern Ireland oppose and most experts believe will damage the province's already sluggish economy. Leaders from business groups, social organizations and trade unions have banded together to call on both parties to sort out their differences and address the challenges Brexit poses. That now seems unlikely.

The recent joint-government collapsed last month amid a scandal involving a botched green energy program that will cost taxpayers nearly $1-billion. Sinn Fein has blamed DUP leader Arlene Foster for the scandal, arguing she oversaw the program when she was enterprise minister in 2012. The party's leader, Michelle O'Neill, has demanded Ms. Foster step down as First Minister. Ms. Foster, who took over the DUP leadership last year, has refused and insisted that the issue should be left to an ongoing independent investigation.

The energy scandal quickly became an excuse to re-open deep rifts between the parties, with ugly reminders of past struggles surfacing during the campaign. One DUP Member of the Legislative Assembly compared Sinn Fein to ISIS, saying there had always been an affiliation between the party and terrorist groups like the IRA and ISIS. Meanwhile, Ms. O'Neill infuriated unionists by attending a memorial service for four IRA men shot by British soldiers in 1992. Sinn Fein has also campaigned vigorously against Brexit and suggested that Northern Ireland should keep some kind of special status within the EU. The DUP backed Brexit.

Sinn Fein emerged from the election as the big winner, increasing its popular vote by nearly 4 per cent. The DUP saw its vote total drop slightly, but it lost a ten-seat lead that it had on Sinn Fein in the assembly which was reduced in size to 90 from 108 members. And for the first time, all of the unionist parties will no longer have a majority in the legislature.

After the vote, Ms. Foster acknowledged the success of Sinn Fein but gave no indication of stepping down, saying Sinn Fein had to respect the "mandate that has been given to me." She also pointed out that the DUP remained the largest party in Northern Ireland. "It is very clear in terms of unionism that it is the DUP that speaks for unionism."

Ms. O'Neill credited her party's success with a feeling among voters that they were fed up with the scandal. "The [Sinn Fein] vote has increased. I think that is because people knew that action needed to be taken, they have had their say, we now need to get down to the business of fixing what's wrong and delivering for all citizens," she told reporters.

Longtime Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams, who helped craft the Good Friday Agreement, called on Ms. Foster to step aside for the good of Northern Ireland. "We're not questioning for one second Arlene's leadership of the DUP," he said in an interview. "We respect that absolutely … But we what we are saying is to get this issue cleared up, in the meantime, without prejudice to your own position, step aside temporarily." He added that the party is committed to Northern Ireland's political institutions and does not want to see direct rule from London.

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When asked how outsiders should view the political impasse in the province, Mr. Adams cited examples of political upheaval in Canadian politics. "Governments fall all the time. Politicians disagree all the time. It's happened in your country. There's wipe out of the Conservatives or the Liberals or whoever. That happens," he said. "I think what's unique about here is we have a very experimental mechanism for government, institutions for government, which are actually a bridge out of conflict. It's a fledgling plant that needs to be nurtured."

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About the Author
European Correspondent

Paul Waldie has been an award-winning journalist with The Globe and Mail for more than 10 years. He has won three National Newspaper Awards for business coverage and been nominated for a Michener Award for meritorious public service journalism. He has also won a Sports Media Canada award for sports writing and authored a best-selling biography of the McCain family. More

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