There has been plenty of acrimonious campaigning ahead of Thursday’s early election for Northern Ireland’s Assembly.
The contest, which comes less than a year after the last vote, follows January’s collapse of the power-sharing government.
It’s now feared the rift between the pro-British unionists against the Irish nationalists Sinn Fein could see devolved power revert to direct rule from London.
The election was sparked by the resignation of Sinn Fein’s deputy First Minister Martin McGuiness after he refused to back the Democratic Unionist Party First Minister Arlene Foster. She had previously rejected calls to quit over an inquiry into a botched renewable energy scheme.
When Sinn Fein’s new leader Michelle O’Neil refused to replace McGuiness as deputy First Minister it meant a return to the ballot box.
According to polls, the DUP and Sinn Fein will emerge again as the two largest parties in the Assembly, forcing the two main parties of unionism and nationalism to share power.
But the row between them hasn’t gone away and Foster believes Sinn Fein is using the election to push for Irish unification: “Sinn Fein seems to be saying if they don’t get what they want then they are prepared to live with direct rule. They really should be truthful with their people about what that means. What that means is an administrator from London coming in and deciding on the future of Northern Ireland for health services, for economic development .”
Measures have already been taken with an eye to re-establishing border posts with Ireland after Britain’s exit from the European Union. Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams says a vote for his party is the only option for those who “really want an Irish Republic.”
“What we are not going to do is to prop up an arrangement which only works for a very small percent of the citizens here. We are united Irelanders, we want to see an end to British rule, we want to see an end to partition,” said Adams.
The historic Good Friday agreement allows the British government to suspend devolution and impose a return to direct rule.
But first there would have to be another election if a new Assembly isn’t agreed within three weeks after the vote.