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Northern Ireland Votes Again as Direct London Rule Looms

Updated on
  • Election being held less than a year after previous vote
  • Failure to agree power sharing could leave no voice on Brexit

Northern Ireland voters went to the polls on Thursday as the future of the province’s administration hangs in the balance.

Voters will elect a new 90-seat assembly after the collapse of a power sharing agreement in January, yet it may not be enough to stave off the U.K. reimposing direct rule on the region. Ministers in London are poised to step in if the two biggest parties cannot agree to enter government together again.

“It doesn’t look promising” for a new government being created, Professor Jonathan Tonge of University of Liverpool, who has written extensively on Northern Irish politics, said in a telephone interview.

If direct rule is imposed, it would leave Northern Ireland without a voice while the U.K. starts negotiations to leave the European Union. The North voted to remain in the bloc and its agriculture-based economy makes it especially vulnerable to higher trade tariffs which may follow if Britain leaves the EU’s Single Market.

The pro-U.K. Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Fein, which wants a united Ireland, were the two biggest parties in the assembly elected last year and are likely to remain so after Thursday’s vote. They will have three weeks to agree a new power-sharing arrangement or direct rule from London will be imposed.

Continuing Acrimony

The previous Northern Irish government collapsed amid a row over the operation of a renewable energy initiative. That dispute has continued, with acrimony on both sides.

For more on why Northern Ireland is holding new elections, click here

Counting of votes will start on Friday morning, with the first results expected around lunchtime. Polls have indicated the gap between the two parties narrowed to as little as one percentage point during the campaign and the DUP may win 29 seats while Sinn Fein may return 27 assembly members, Tonge said.

The DUP is favorite to come out of the elections with the most seats, It had odds of 1/4, which means a successful $4 bet would return winnings of $1, with bookmaker Paddy Power Betfair Plc as polls opened.

In any case, the prospects for a new government are bleak.

Sinn Fein leader Michelle O’Neill has indicated she won’t work with DUP leader Arlene Foster until an investigation into the renewable energy initiative is complete, Tonge said. If Sinn Fein overtakes the DUP to become the biggest party, the unionists may not enter government, he added.

“Frankly, the DUP may prefer a period of direct rule than having a Sinn Fein led government,” Tonge said.