December 13, 2019 / 2:42 PM / 2 months ago

UK election clears way for Northern Ireland devolution, Dublin says

DUBLIN (Reuters) - The outcome of the British election will help a fresh drive next week to restore devolved government in Northern Ireland after a near three-year hiatus, Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said on Friday.

FILE PHOTO: Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney speaks as he leaves the General Affairs council addressing the state of play of Brexit, in Luxembourg October 15, 2019. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

The British-run region’s mandatory power-sharing executive, a key part of a 1998 peace deal that largely ended three decades of violence, collapsed in early 2017 after a row between the dominant Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Fein.

Both the DUP - hardline supporters of the union with Britain - and the Irish nationalist Sinn Fein lost ground in the share of the vote in Thursday’s election to what Coveney called “middle ground” parties more supportive of dialogue.

“We have seen a real surge in middle ground politics and I think that says a lot about the anxiety and impatience to get Stormont (Assembly) back up and functioning again,” Coveney told Irish broadcaster RTE.

“I think we can make progress (in the negotiations) very quickly,” said Coveney, who will co-chair the talks from Monday.

The middle ground surge cost the DUP two of the 10 seats it had won in 2017, while Sinn Fein just about retained its seven seats. A near 7% decline in its overall share of the vote marked the biggest decline for any party in the province.

Sinn Fein’s decision to stand aside in three constituencies to boost better-placed opponents of the DUP only partly accounted for the reverse.

Both the DUP and Sinn Fein said frustration over repeated failed attempts to return to the devolved assembly had pushed voters to the more moderate pro-Irish SDLP and cross community Alliance Party, who won the last three seats on a much increased share of the vote.

If such a result were repeated in the multi-seat election for the devolved assembly - which London has said should take place if the talks do not succeed by mid-January - the SDLP and Alliance Party would greatly increase their presence in the regional parliament.

DEADLOCK

Sinn Fein has also long complained that attempts to break the deadlock in Belfast have been complicated by the DUP’s role since 2017 in propping up the British government in London and the impact of Brexit on Northern Ireland.

The resounding victory of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party in Thursday’s election and the clear path it now opens up to end three years of Brexit uncertainty could remove those hurdles.

“Because of Boris Johnson’s majority, the DUP are going to have now to refocus on the North, on relationships with ourselves and other parties and I think that assists us in the negotiations,” Eoin O Broin, a senior Sinn Fein lawmaker in the Irish republic, told RTE.

“I’d been looking into next week actually much more encouraged than I might have been this time last year.”

In Thursday’s election, Northern Ireland elected more Irish nationalists than unionists for the first time since Ireland was partitioned in 1921, and Sinn Fein renewed its calls for a vote to leave the UK and unite with the Irish Republic.

But Coveney said such talk of a united Ireland was “not a helpful discussion right now”.

Reporting by Padraic Halpin; Editing by Gareth Jones

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