By SYLVIA HUI
LONDON (AP) — A senior British official was meeting with rival Northern Ireland party leaders Monday to press them to re-establish a power-sharing government amid uncertainty after Irish nationalist party Sinn Fein scored a historic victory in local elections.
Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis was holding talks with leaders of the five parties that formed the last Executive, or devolved government, before it collapsed in February.
Sinn Fein, which seeks union with Ireland, overtook the rival Democratic Unionist Party in last week’s Northern Ireland Assembly elections to become the first Irish nationalist party to top the voting in Northern Ireland’s history.
It was a milestone for a party long associated with the paramilitary group Irish Republican Army, which sought to use violence to take Northern Ireland out of U.K. rule.
But it’s unclear what role Sinn Fein will now take in the Executive, which has been paralyzed for two months by disputes over post-Brexit arrangements.
While Sinn Fein now has the right to the position of Northern Ireland’s first minister, a functioning Executive cannot be formed unless the DUP, as the largest unionist party, agrees to take the role of deputy minister under the region’s mandatory power-sharing rules.
The DUP has maintained it will not return to government unless its demands over post-Brexit customs arrangements are met.
Party leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said Monday he made clear to Lewis that the DUP will not nominate ministers to the Executive unless the U.K. government takes “decisive action” on the new Brexit customs rules known as the Northern Ireland Protocol.
“They gave a firm commitment to protect our place in the U.K. internal market. They have not done so, they have failed over the last two-an-a-half years to honor that commitment,” Donaldson said.
“We look to what the government is now going to say, but more fundamentally important is what the government is going to do,” he added.
The unionists are strongly opposed to new customs and border checks on some goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the U.K. that were introduced after Britain’s exit from the European Union.
The special arrangement was meant to prevent the return of a hard land border with the Republic of Ireland. But unionists argue that the new checks have created a barrier between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K. that undermines their British identity, and want them scrapped.
Northern Ireland has been without a functioning government since February when the DUP’s leader at the time, Paul Givan, quit as first minister in protest over the post-Brexit rules.
Britain’s Conservative government is trying to get the EU to agree to major changes, but negotiations have faltered. Officials have acknowledged that they must address the post-Brexit challenges to bring stability to Northern Ireland.
The Northern Ireland Assembly has a week to meet and allow the newly-elected legislators to take their seats. Assembly members will then choose a Speaker and ministers, starting with the first and deputy first ministers.
If, as seems likely, no executive can be formed, ministers from the previous government will stay in power as a caretaker administration. A new election must be held if there is still no executive after 24 weeks.
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