Northern Ireland’s largest British unionist party has agreed to end a boycott that left the region’s people without a power-sharing administration for two years and rattled the foundations of a 25-year-old peace treaty.
The breakthrough could see the shuttered Belfast government restored within days – with Irish nationalist party Sinn Fein holding the post of first minister for the first time.
After a marathon late-night meeting, Democratic Unionist Party leader Jeffrey Donaldson said on Tuesday that the party’s executive branch had backed proposals to return to the government.
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He said agreements reached with the United Kingdom’s government in London “provide a basis for our party to nominate members to the Northern Ireland Executive, thus seeing the restoration of the locally elected institutions”.
“The result was clear. The DUP has been decisive. I have been mandated to move forward,” Donaldson told reporters.
The breakthrough after months of inconclusive negotiations came after the UK government last week gave Northern Ireland politicians until February 8 to restore the Northern Ireland Assembly and the local government or face new elections.
UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak called it a “positive step” towards restoring the institutions and “delivering for the people of Northern Ireland,” his spokesman said.
Sunak’s Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris told reporters that “all the conditions are now in place for the assembly to return”, with little opposition expected in Westminster.
The deal contained “significant changes … to make sure our internal market works properly”, he added, saying he did not believe it would require renegotiations with the European Union.
Reporting from Belfast, Al Jazeera’s Harry Fawcett said that while the deal had not been finalised, it was a major step towards the power-sharing executive at Stormont, the seat of the Northern Ireland Assembly.
An approved deal would allow the DUP and the nationalist pro-Irish Sinn Fein to elect a speaker for the Assembly as early as next week.
It would also see Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill become first minister – the first time a nationalist has held the post after her party overtook the DUP in the last Assembly election in May 2022.
Mary Lou McDonald, leader of Sinn Fein, said that was of “very great significance” and she was optimistic the Assembly would be back up and running before the February deadline.
A key plank of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which ended three decades of sectarian violence over British rule in Northern Ireland, was to keep an open border with EU member the Republic of Ireland.
But after the UK decided to leave the EU and its borderless trading bloc after decades of membership, Northern Ireland began experiencing a political deadlock.
The DUP quit the government in opposition to new trade rules put in place after the UK left the EU in 2020 that imposed customs checks and other hurdles on goods moving to Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK.
The checks were established to maintain an open border between the north and the Republic of Ireland to the south. The DUP, though, says the new east-west customs border undermines Northern Ireland’s place in the UK.
In February 2023, the UK and the EU agreed on a deal to ease customs checks and other hurdles for goods moving to Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK. But it was not enough for the DUP, which continued its government boycott.
The two-year hiatus also put pressure on stretched public services and led to a budget deadlock with London.
That triggered the biggest public sector strike in a generation this month after Northern Irish workers failed to receive pay increases given to others across the UK.
Steve Baker, a junior Northern Ireland minister, tried to pre-empt concerns that the changes might require the UK again to follow some EU regulations – which would infuriate advocates of Brexit.
“There are no commitments of any kind … to align GB (Great Britain) with EU law; prevent GB from diverging from any retained EU law; or increase alignment in Northern Ireland beyond the strictly limited scope parliament has approved,” he said on the social media platform X.
The Republic of Ireland’s prime minister, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, said his government and the European Commission still had to see the final deal to be confident it did not have any negative consequences for last year’s reworked post-Brexit deal for Northern Ireland or the Good Friday Agreement.
But following a “good” phone call with his British counterpart, Rishi Sunak, Varadkar told Ireland’s parliament that he hoped a new government would be formed by February 8.
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