Martin McGuinness quit as Northern Ireland's Deputy First Minister a week ago.

Story highlights

The political crisis was sparked by the resignation of Martin McGuinness

The Northern Ireland Assembly can only function with a power-sharing agreement

CNN  — 

Northern Ireland is facing a snap election after a breakdown in the fragile power-sharing agreement that has ensured peace for nearly 20 years.

The British government called the new elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont, outside Belfast, in an effort to resolve a political crisis that has been brewing for months.

James Brokenshire, the Northern Ireland minister in the UK government, confirmed the new elections would be held on 2 March.

Financial scandal

The crisis came to a head last week when the nationalist Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, resigned.

His party, Sinn Fein, refused to nominate a replacement and under the terms of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, the power-sharing administration between nationalists and unionists cannot continue unless leaders of both groups are represented.

McGuinness had quit over differences with his partners in government, the Democratic Unionist Party. The unionist First Minister, Arlene Foster, had refused calls by Sinn Fein to stand down while an investigation into a controversial energy scheme was investigated.

The 1998 agreement ended 30 years of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland, which remained part of the UK when Ireland was partitioned in 1922.

Nationalists, broadly made up of the Catholic population, want the end of British rule and the reunification of Ireland, while unionists – mostly Protestants – want to remain part of the UK.

Between 1968 and 1998 thousands of people died in an upsurge of sectarian violence, often referred to as “The Troubles.”

According to the Press Association, Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill told the assembly on Monday: “The DUP have treated these institutions and sections of the community with contempt and arrogance” and that Sinn Fein would only return to government if there was “real and meaningful change.”

Foster then accused Sinn Fein of engineering the poll, with PA quoting her as saying: “They have forced an election that risks Northern Ireland’s future and stability and which suits nobody but themselves.”

‘Bring people together’

But Brokenshire urged everyone to be open to dialogue for the good of Northern Ireland and to “bring people together again.”

He told reporters that he wanted to see a partnership government re-established “at the earliest opportunity” after the poll.

“This is essential for the operation of devolved government,” he said.

Earlier Monday, UK Prime Minister Theresa May reportedly contacted both leaders in an attempt to prevent the collapse of the devolved government.

According to PA, the Prime Minister’s official spokeswoman said May wanted to make sure Northern Ireland had “a voice” in the run-up to the start of EU withdrawal talks

In the last Northern Ireland election in May 2016, the Democratic Unionists won 38 seats in the assembly and Sinn Fein won 28.