Northern Ireland power-sharing could resume within days, after two-year hiatus

The main pro-union party in Northern Ireland, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), said Tuesday it had reached a deal with the UK government that would end its near two-year government boycott and mark a return to power-sharing in the province.

Jeffrey Donaldson, leader of the pro-UK DUP, made the announcement at a press conference in the early hours of Tuesday morning.

The move could see the first minister position filled by a member of the nationalist Sinn Féin party for the first time since the power-sharing arrangement was put in place as part of the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.

DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson pictured on Tuesday. - Charles McQuillan/Getty Images
DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson pictured on Tuesday. - Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

Sinn Féin won the most seats in the elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly in 2022.

Northern Ireland has been without a devolved government for almost two years since the DUP walked out in February 2022, ostensibly in protest against trade rules put in place after the UK left the EU in 2020.

Brexit put strain on the carefully calibrated power-sharing deal that was intended to help maintain peace in Northern Ireland, which was wracked by a bitter sectarian conflict known as the Troubles between the 1960s and the negotiated peace of 1998. More than 3,500 people were killed in the violence, and about 47,500 people were injured.

Post-Brexit trade rules imposed customs checks on goods moving to Northern Ireland from the UK’s mainland.

Sinn Fein's Mary Lou McDonald (left) and Michelle O'Neill (right) talk to the press on Tuesday. - Charles McQuillan/Getty Images
Sinn Fein's Mary Lou McDonald (left) and Michelle O'Neill (right) talk to the press on Tuesday. - Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

A deal known as the Northern Ireland Protocol was agreed to allow Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, to remain within the EU market so that it could trade goods freely across its land border with the Republic of Ireland, an EU member state.

The adoption of the protocol infuriated unionist politicians in Belfast who claimed the move created a trade barrier between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, therefore undermining its position within the union. Since then, the DUP has refused to return to government with the pro-Irish nationalist party Sinn Féin.

Unionists in Northern Ireland, like the DUP, are in favor of remaining in the United Kingdom, whereas nationalists, like Sinn Féin, are in favor of the unification of Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland.

Post-Brexit deal reached

At a press conference on Tuesday, Donaldson said his party had concluded that a package of new measures provides a basis for the DUP to nominate members to the Northern Ireland executive (the province’s governing body).

He added this would be subject to commitments between the DUP and the UK government in Westminster being “fully and faithfully delivered as agreed.”

“I believe that a clear decision has been made tonight… And I believe that in that decision, we have a basis for moving forward, provided and subject to the [UK] government honouring its commitments,” said Donaldson.

UK Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Chris Heaton-Harris pictured in London on Tuesday. - Henry Nicholls/AFP/Getty Images
UK Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Chris Heaton-Harris pictured in London on Tuesday. - Henry Nicholls/AFP/Getty Images

Donaldson went on to say the package “safeguards Northern Ireland’s place in the Union and will restore our place within the UK internal market,” adding it will also remove checks for goods moving within the UK and remaining in Northern Ireland, and will end the province “automatically following future EU laws.”

He said the new legislation will guarantee “unfettered access” for Northern Ireland businesses for the rest of the UK.

Speaking to BBC Radio on Tuesday, Donaldson said he expected the full details of the decision – comprising of both constitutional legislation and practical arrangements – to be published as early as Wednesday once the UK government finalizes details.

He added the devolved government could return to Stormont – Northern Ireland’s seat of power – within days “if the (UK) government moves with the speed that I believe they can.”

What’s next?

After the deal is published and the legislation is passed, this could lead to a recall of the Northern Ireland Assembly, which would need to see assembly members elect a new speaker.

Once a speaker is elected, the political parties that are entitled to jointly lead the executive will put forward their nominees to lead as first minister. The executive is the body that makes decisions in Northern Ireland.

For the first time, Sinn Féin will nominate a first minister because it won the most seats in the election last year.

The DUP will also nominate a deputy first minister. Donaldson will not be nominated because he resigned his assembly seat when the party walked out of the government two years ago.

A ‘significant step’

The prime ministers of Ireland and the United Kingdom both said they were “hopeful” that the deal with the DUP would help restore power-sharing.

Downing Street said Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was “confident that the steps taken pave the way for the restoration of power-sharing,” while the office of the Irish Taoiseach (prime minister) said Leo Varadkar had a “good call” with Sunak and that both leaders hoped this “paves the way for the early restoration of the Northern Ireland Executive and the Assembly.”

The UK’s Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Chris Heaton-Harris welcomed the move as a “significant step.”

“I am pleased that the DUP have agreed to accept the package of measures that the UK Government has put forward and as a result they are ready to return to the Northern Ireland Assembly and nominate representatives to the Northern Ireland Executive,” said Heaton-Harris on X, adding that the UK “will stick to this agreement.”

“I now believe that all the conditions are in place for the Assembly to return, the parties entitled to form an Executive are meeting today to discuss these matters and I hope to be able to finalise this deal with the political parties as soon as possible,” he added.

Sinn Féin’s Vice President Michelle O’Neill said she welcomed the restoration of power-sharing. “The parties will come together later today. We have much to do to confront the challenges facing our public services, workers and families which require urgent action,” she said on X.

Ireland’s Tánaiste – the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Minister for Defence, Micheál Martin – also welcomed the decision, calling the return of the assembly and executive “good news for the people of Northern Ireland, and the Good Friday Agreement.”

“I look forward to working with the Executive and Assembly in the time ahead,” said Martin on X Tuesday.

US Ambassador to Ireland Claire Cronin also welcomed the decision.

“The people of Northern Ireland are best served by a power-sharing government in Stormont as outlined in the Good Friday Agreement. [US President Joe Biden] has long made clear his support for a secure and prosperous Northern Ireland in which all communities have a voice and enjoy the gains of the hard-won peace,” she said on X.

Correction: This story has been updated with the correct year that Sinn Fein won the most seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly vote.

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