Northern Ireland should not return to British direct rule because the region would be at the mercy of a “hard Brexit government”, according to the leader of the main nationalist opposition party.
Colum Eastwood, the leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), however, called for joint British-Irish rule if no positive election result is reached at the Stormont assembly.
But in a significant move, he rejected direct British rule claiming that Northern Ireland – where over 55 per cent voted to Remain at the EU referendum – would be “at the mercy of a hard Brexit British government” and without a voice.
Belfast’s current political crisis comes after Martin McGuiness, the deputy first minister resigned on Monday, effectively ending power sharing at Stormont. The Sinn Fein politician cited concerns over the DUP’s “arrogance” in how it has handled allegations of a major financial scandal, known as the “cash for ash” affair.
Unless a replacement for Mr McGuiness is found within seven days a snap election will be triggered for the devolved Northern Ireland Assembly. The next election had not been due to be held until 2021.
However, if the parties in Northern Ireland fail to reach a consensus on a devolved administration following an election the region could then return temporarily to the control of Westminster, under Theresa May’s authority. But Mr Eastwood has rejected this, adding there must be joint British-Irish rule.
“If post election an executive cannot be formed, the only acceptable position for the nationalist community is joint authority between the Irish and British governments. We cannot allow a DUP-run government to be solely replaced by British direct rule ministers,” he said in a statement on his party’s website.
“Theresa May, the British secretary of state and the DUP need to understand that there can be no return to what has gone before.”
He continued: “Joint authority allows a balance of voices between the two traditions on this island. That balance is the basis of all our agreements and it is the accommodation we all signed up to. In the absence of a functioning assembly and executive, that balance can only be served through joint authority.
“This is particularly important in the context of Brexit…In the absence of an executive, British direct rule would mean we are at the mercy of a hard Brexit British government. Joint authority will mean we have a voice at the Brexit table, a voice that could stand against attempts to ignore the will of our people, a voice that could represent the interests of the entire island and represent the majority of the people in the north, who voted to remain in the European Union.”
But Mr Brokenshire has insisted he will continue to push for a resolution to the crisis engulfing Stormont. "My focus is on the here and now, on what can be achieved now, on what opportunities there are, what the potential may be to bring people together, rather than see people be driven further apart," he added.
Theresa May also used her weekly session Prime Minister’s Questions sessions to dismiss that the Government would delay the triggering of Article 50 – the untested protocol for leaving the EU – as a result of the situation in Northern Ireland.
Her spokeswoman added: "Obviously the situation is in flux and we are doing all we can to try to find a way through, including by the PM speaking to the Irish Taoiseach last night about the situation.
"There is now a window before elections could be called, and we are not going to get ahead of ourselves. We have been clear on the timetable for triggering Article 50 and we will be sticking to that."
She added: "We are going to focus on how we can support political stability in Northern Ireland, recognising the progress that's been made and not wanting to put that at risk and engaging with all the parties."
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies