Voters in Northern Ireland went to the polls in assembly elections last week to determine the future shape of their power-sharing government. The snap election had been called after the Irish Republican party, Sinn Fein, walked out of the previous administration over a home-heating programme that could end up costing the provincial coffers some £400 million (Dh18 billion). Arlene Foster, the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and the former First Minister, had been under increasing political pressure to step aside before Sinn Fein walked out.

As a result of the election, Sinn Fein under its new leader Michelle O’Neill, won 27 seats, one less than the DUP. Both parties have shared power under the terms of the 1998 peace accords that ended more than three decades of sectarian and political fighting — a conflict that claimed more than 3,500 lives.

With a majority of the UK voting to leave the European Union, and with the Dublin government in the Irish Republic firmly supporting membership of the EU, there is a prospect now of a border returning to again separate north from south.

With the two economies fully integrated and with ease of passage of goods and services, any return to an international frontier, duties and customs inspection would exacerbate the differences that still linger there.

Both Sinn Fein and the DUP have less than three weeks to agree on terms for a new power-sharing administration. Foster is determined to return as First Minister but there is no appetite in Sinn Fein to enter again into government under her leadership. If both parties fail, then the province would be run by direct rule from London — an alternative that few would relish.