UK official to press N Ireland leaders to form government

A senior British official will meet 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 will meet the leaders of the five parties that formed the last Executive, or devolved government, before it collapsed in February.

“The people of Northern Ireland deserve a stable and accountable devolved government and I will continue to urge the leaders of Northern Ireland political parties to fulfil their responsibilities and form an Executive as soon as possible,” Lewis said.

“I will remain in close contact with the party leaders but it is for the parties to agree on a way forward,” he added.

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 government. While it has the right to the role 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 their demands over post-Brexit customs arrangements are met.

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 quit as first minister in protest over the post-Brexit rules, known as the Northern Ireland Protocol.

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.

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