Northern Ireland holds snap vote in shadow of Brexit

Maureen COFFLARD, Douglas DALBY
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Sinn Fein's leader in Northern Ireland Michelle O'Neill leaves a polling station after casting her vote n March 2, 2017

Northern Ireland was voting Thursday in snap elections to resolve a political crisis fuelled by bad blood and Brexit, which is testing the delicate peace in the British province.

Long-simmering tensions boiled over in January when the Sinn Fein party -- once the political arm of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) -- brought down the province's semi-autonomous government.

That triggered fresh elections in the Northern Ireland Assembly, a legislature in Belfast in which representatives of once-warring communities have shared power on and off since a 1998 peace deal.

Observers predict a similar outcome to the May 2016 elections, in which the pro-British Democratic Unionist Party won slightly more seats than the pro-Irish republican Sinn Fein.

If the two parties cannot resolve their differences and form an administration within three weeks, the assembly's executive could be suspended and the province fully governed from London.

Martin McGuinness, a former IRA commander who became Northern Ireland's deputy first minister, resigned in January in protest over a botched green energy subsidy scheme.

It had been instigated by First Minister Arlene Foster, head of the DUP, when she was economy minister.

Deeply engrained historical enmity was also exacerbated by the June vote for Britain to leave the European Union, which the DUP supported but Sinn Fein opposed.

- 'Find a way forward' -

McGuinness is not standing again due to ill health, and his successor as Sinn Fein's leader in Northern Ireland, Michelle O'Neill, has signalled a possible way out.

"We're up for going back into government but only on the basis of equality, respect and integrity," she told AFP on Wednesday.

"We cannot go into government with Arlene Foster as first or deputy first minister while there is a shadow hanging over her, but that doesn't mean we can't find a way forward."

Foster has appealed for unionists to resist Sinn Fein's demands for her to stand aside pending an investigation into the energy scheme.

"If you feed a crocodile it will keep coming back for more," she told a party rally.

On the streets of Belfast, there was disillusionment over the scandal.

"I'm just fed up with all the corruption and all the scandals to do with the heating and all the rest of it," civil servant Catherine Aouad said.

Annette Martin, who works for the Marie Curie charity, said: "I'm not sure I expect an awful lot, to be honest, but I still wanted to make my vote."

- Brexit and the border -

Prime Minister Theresa May has said Britain will leave the EU's single market and likely the customs union after Brexit, which would make the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland the UK's only land border with the European Union.

London, Dublin and Brussels have all insisted they want to keep free movement across the Irish border -- an arrangement dating from its creation in the 1920s, long before both states joined the EU's European Economic Community forerunner in 1973.

The Irish Republic's Prime Minister Enda Kenny was in Brussels on Thursday for talks which included the impact of Brexit on the Northern Irish peace process.

"I hope that numbers turn out, big numbers and that the result will be clear there can be an assembly and an executive put together," he said of the election.

Britain's Northern Ireland minister James Brokenshire emphasised the importance of a "frictionless" border during talks in Brussels this week, and promised to "take no risks" with political stability in the province.

In the Brexit referendum, Northern Ireland voted by 55 percent for the UK to remain in the bloc, but across the entire kingdom, 52 percent voted to leave.

Casting his ballot in east Belfast, Neal Wilson, a 34-year-old public sector worker, said he believed the fears were overblown.

"There is a lot of talk about how the Troubles will come back because we are not in the European Union. It's actually very insulting for the people here," he said, predicting a successful outcome from Brexit.

Some 228 candidates are standing to fill 90 seats. Polls close at 2200 GMT but final results are not expected until Saturday.