Ministers have been warned not to press ahead with Brexit until a political crisis in Northern Ireland is resolved, as the government admitted devolved power sharing in the province was at “grave” risk.
Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire told MPs the political crisis sparked by a scandal over a green energy subsidy could do lasting damage to the devolution deal at the heart of the Good Friday peace agreement.
Mr Brokenshire said a divisive snap election may be inevitable, with nationalist and unionist politicians expressing little hope of reaching a compromise.
Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness collapsed Northern Ireland’s power sharing executive on Monday by resigning as deputy first minister in protest at the handling of the so-called “cash for ash” heating scheme scandal by Arlene Foster, the First Minister.
Mrs Foster, the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, said she was open to holding last-ditch talks to avert an election, which under the terms of the St Andrews Agreement must be called at the start of next week if no deal is reached.
In a statement to MPs yesterday, Mr Brokenshire urged political leaders in the province to “come together to find a way forward from the current position in the best interests of Northern Ireland”.
But he added: “If there is no resolution, an election is inevitable despite the widely held view that this election may deepen divisions and threaten the continuity of the devolved institutions.”
Mr Brokenshire dismissed suggestions that Westminster could rush through emergency legislation to the Stormont Assembly in Belfast.
However, DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson said Northern Ireland was “looking at a prolonged period of direct rule” from London.
With the Supreme Court set to decide whether devolved administrations must give approval before Brexit talks begin, the SNP’s Deidre Brock called on Prime Minister Theresa May to push back her 31 March deadline for triggering Article 50.
Ms Brock said: “Since Monday there hasn’t been a Northern Ireland Executive to consult and that means it won’t be able to send ministers to the Joint Ministerial Committee meetings on Brexit.
“Brexit negotiators can have no idea what the opinions held across these islands are and so cannot take them into account.”
A Downing Street spokeswoman insisted the government was sticking to its timetable, and said the PM would chair the next meeting with devolved administrations later this month as normal.