By Ian Graham
BELFAST (Reuters) - Northern Ireland goes to the polls for the second time in a year on Thursday to try to break a deadlock that could see devolved power revert to London for the first time in a decade just as Britain negotiates its exit from the European Union.
The power-sharing government collapsed in January after Irish nationalists Sinn Fein withdrew support for the pro-British Democratic Unionist Party over its handling of a scandal around the abuse of heating subsidies.
While no one predicts the impasse will bring a return to the violence that killed 3,600 people in the three decades before a 1998 peace deal, some are warning of a deterioration in community relations coupled with government paralysis as Brexit talks determine the province's political and economic future.
If the two parties, as expected, remain the largest after votes are counted on Friday, they will have three weeks to form a power-sharing government to avoid devolved power returning to the British parliament at Westminster.
"They are so busy point-scoring, I do not see them suddenly becoming best pals and reaching agreement within three weeks," said Gillian Graham, a 65-year-old retired teacher, voting in the rural Strangford constituency in County Down.
"I think this election is a complete waste of time. Perhaps a spell of direct rule would be no bad thing and no pay might focus their minds."
Former DUP leader Peter Robinson, who retired in 2015, said on Wednesday the timeframe would not be enough to agree the scale of changes likely needed and predicted direct rule by London would "almost inevitably" return.
Sinn Fein wants outgoing Northern Ireland leader, Arlene Foster, to step aside during an inquiry into the heating scandal and for the Irish language to be given legal status in Northern Ireland. The DUP has said it will not concede on either point.
The parties have used the campaign to rally their sectarian bases, with Foster telling voters she would not "feed the crocodiles" of Sinn Fein by granting concessions.
"Arlene has to stand up to those Shinners (Sinn Fein)," said Billy Hamilton, 77, a retired shipyard worker casting his vote in the heart of Protestant East Belfast. "We've given enough but they will keep coming back for more and won't be happy until we are all under Dublin rule."
Sinn Fein has upset some unionists by calling for a referendum on creating a united Ireland to avoid it being pulled out of the EU along with the rest of the United Kingdom.
As the only part of the United Kingdom with an EU land border, Northern Ireland is widely seen as the UK region likely to be most impacted by Brexit. But while Scotland has been loudly lobbying for its interests, the Northern Ireland political establishment has been distracted by the crisis.
Many voters say they are fed up with sectarian bickering and plan to stay at home in a province where turnout has fallen at each of the last four elections to the lowest level among the United Kingdom regions.
"I nearly didn't bother voting but Foster can't be allowed to get away with it," said Sean Kelly, a 35-year-old civil servant. "I don't want direct rule but if it comes to it for a bit, so be it."
(Writing by Conor Humphries; Editing by Padraic Halpin and Alison Williams)