N. Ireland government could be restored today after three years

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Northern Ireland’s devolved government could be restored today following three years at loggerheads after one of the two main parties backed a draft agreement.

The DUP backed the agreement tabled by the British and Irish governments late on Thursday night in an attempt to restore the government three years after it broke down.

Northern Ireland’s other largest party, Sinn Fein, now has to sign up to the deal.

Sky News understands the nationalist party will give the go-ahead on Friday afternoon – or Saturday at the latest – after being locked in talks with the DUP all this week.

The new proposal does not include a standalone act protecting the Irish language – something Sinn Fein have insisted on.

However, it does contain other significant legislation to protect the language, such as the appointment of a commissioner.

DUP leader Arlene Foster could be sworn in as first minister this evening, and Sinn Fein leader Michelle O’Neill as deputy first minister, said Sky’s senior Ireland correspondent.

More from Northern Ireland

Simon Coveney, speaking for the Irish government, said they had “worked tirelessly through some extremely complicated issues”.

Irish Foreign Affairs minister Simon Coveney (left) and Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Julian Smith outside Stormont
Image: Simon Coveney (left) and Julian Smith said the deal was a result of months of hard work

He urged “all political leaders and their teams to grab this opportunity and get back to work” and said the deal was “filled with compromises” which were fair and in the interests of the people of Northern Ireland.

Endorsing the deal, he added: “The past three years have been difficult… we need to move on.”

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Julian Smith, said he believed “there is something in this new deal for everyone”.

Speaking on Thursday night, he said: “Earlier tonight, I spoke to the UK prime minister Boris Johnson and he and I agreed that the document that we have published here tonight – the result of many months of hard work by the the two governments – represents a fair and balanced deal for all the citizens of Northern Ireland.

“This deal means that the assembly here, can get back up and running tomorrow (Friday).

“It means that nurses, who have been on strike for the first time in 103 years can achieve pay parity.

“But more than this, it guarantees that the Good Friday Agreement, signed over 20 years ago, is protected and is respected.”

Martin McGuinness discusses his withdrawal from prominence in Northern Ireland politics
Image: Martin McGuinness resigned in 2017, which triggered the collapse of Stormont

The resignation of the late deputy first minister Martin McGuinness three years ago triggered the collapse of the devolved institutions at Stormont and endless rounds of talks have failed to resolve differences.

Both the UK and Irish governments had outlined their proposals to restore powersharing in Northern Ireland to the DUP and Sinn Fein.

DUP leader Arlene Foster said the deal represented a “fair and balanced way” to restore powersharing but that it was “not a perfect deal”.

She said: “There are elements within it which we recognise are the product of long negotiations and represent compromise outcomes. There will always need to be give and take.”

Arlene Foster has not backed Brexit deals presented by the last two prime ministers
Image: DUP leader Arlene Foster has backed the draft deal

Sinn Fein has said its ruling council will meet on Friday to consider the deal.

President Mary Lou McDonald said: “The governments have chosen to publish this text which we have received in the last hour.

“We are studying the text and will give it careful consideration.

“The Sinn Fein Ard Chomhairle (ruling council) will meet tomorrow to fully assess it.”

Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald
Image: Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald said she is considering the deal

Ulster Unionist Party leader Steve Aiken said: “We will consider this complex and far-reaching document carefully and consult widely within our party before making any further comments”.

He continued: “If the Assembly is recalled on Friday, the Ulster Unionist Party MLAs will attend and consider the business put before them.

“The Ulster Unionist Party is committed to a return of devolution that is fair and sustainable.”

Ulster Unionist Party leader Steve Aiken
Image: Ulster Unionist Party leader Steve Aiken said his party is ‘committed to a return of devolution that is fair and sustainable’

The latest developments at Stormont came after Mr Johnson, addressing the Commons at Prime Minister’s Questions earlier this week, urged the region’s politicians to “take responsibility” and get the institutions up and running again.

Ongoing strikes by health workers have added pressure on leaders to return to a devolved Assembly.

Thousands of nurses stood on picket lines at hospitals across Northern Ireland on Wednesday amid a dispute over pay and staffing shortages.

One of them, Anne Waterman, 60 – a staff nurse demonstrating outside the Ulster Hospital, which is less than a mile from the gates of Stormont – had a message to politicians.

She said: “If I was to stop working for three years I would not be getting paid, I think politicians here really have to step up to the mark, speak up for us and support us because we do not know what else to do.”

Royal College of Nursing Chief Executive and General Secretary Dame Donna Kinnair (fourth left) joins the picket line outside the Belfast City Hospital
Nurses in Northern Ireland stage a walkout

The last DUP/Sinn Fein-led coalition government collapsed in January 2017 following a row about a botched green energy scheme.

The dispute subsequently grew to include more traditional disagreements on matters including the Irish language and the thorny legacy of the Troubles.

Proposed legislative protections for Irish language speakers and reform of a contentious Stormont voting mechanism – called the petition of concern – have been the crucial sticking points in the most recent talks, which got under way following the general election last month.

Sinn Fein had previously demanded a stand-alone Irish Language Act as a prerequisite of any deal to restore devolution.

The DUP expressed a willingness to legislate to protect the language, but only as part of broader culture laws which also include the Ulster Scots tradition.

The long-running row has boiled down to whether new laws are contained in a stand-alone bill or as part of a wider piece of legislation.

Analysis: ‘Brewing optimism powersharing will be restored today’

By David Blevins, senior Ireland correspondent

There is a brewing optimism Sinn Fein will be prepared to sign up to the deal on the table because really they have little option if they want powersharing to be restored by today, or tomorrow at the latest.

The party has always demanded there should be a standalone Irish language act. The DUP has always insisted that issue should not be elevated above other issues about culture and identity.

The proposals do not contain a standalone act but there is meaty legislation to protect Irish language speakers, including the appointment of a commissioner.

So, it’s the usual smoke and mirrors we see so often in these negotiations, where the DUP will say it isn’t an act and Sinn Fein will say it is by any other name – but that’s a harder sell for Sinn Fein.

They can argue the other contentious issue around how Stormont functions has been resolved, – there are going to be significant changes to controversial cross-community voting mechanism to ensure it is not a veto that can be used by the DUP alone.

Some people are describing these proposals as a score draw for the DUP and Sinn Fein.

If we can get both parties over the line by the end of today – and that’s what both parties are hoping for – then the speaker may convene a session of the Northern Ireland Assembly for the first time in three years.

Stormont: Draft agreement means Northern Ireland government could be restored after three years

Northern Ireland’s devolved government could be restored today following three years at loggerheads after one of the two main parties backed a draft agreement. The DUP backed the agreement tabled by the British and Irish governments late on Thursday night in an attempt to restore the government three years after it broke down.

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