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  1. ITV Report

NI ‘must not be derailed’ by election - Brokenshire

The Northern Ireland Secretary of State has said the gains of the past must not be derailed by a divisive election.

James Brokenshire called for a respectful election campaign and warned the future of Stormont powersharing was at stake.

He explained that the Assembly will be dissolved from 26 January, meaning the last sitting day will be the 25 January, “allowing time to conduct any urgent remaining business”.

The Secretary of State was forced to announce a poll on Monday after Sinn Féin's Martin McGuinness resigned as deputy first minister in a feud with coalition partners the Democratic Unionists over a massively overspending eco-boiler scheme.

Mr Brokenshire said: "Northern Ireland has come so far and we cannot allow the gains that have been made to be derailed.

"So, yes, we have an election. But once this election is over we need to be in a position to continue building a Northern Ireland that works for everyone."

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The former first minister at Stormont, Arlene Foster, had predicted the contest would be "brutal".

But Mr Brokenshire warned a divisive election could exacerbate tensions ahead of efforts to rebuild a coalition government.

"Once the campaign is over we need to be in a position to re-establish strong and stable devolved government in Northern Ireland."

There are fears that a polarised campaign will make a rapprochement between the DUP and Sinn Féin even less likely.

This raises the spectre of a return to direct rule from London if a new administration cannot be formed within the required three weeks on the other side of the 2 March poll.

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Over the past decade Northern Ireland has enjoyed the longest run of unbroken devolved government since before the demise of the old Stormont Parliament in 1972.

Mr Brokenshire noted: "It has not always been easy, with more than a few bumps in the road but, with strong leadership, issues that might once have brought the institutions down have been resolved through dialogue."

The country will go to the polls to elect a reduced 90 Stormont Assembly members just 10 months after the last vote.

The move was triggered by the fracturing of a powersharing deal between Sinn Féin and the DUP.

Labour has said maintaining the Northern Ireland Assembly should be the number one priority as the party warned against a return to direct rule.

Shadow Northern Ireland secretary Dave Anderson said imposing direct control of the country from Westminster will serve no-one.

He urged Northern Ireland politicians to stand up and be counted amid the ongoing political crisis.

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