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Northern Ireland eyes end to government shutdown

Stormont is the seat of the devolved parliament in Northern Ireland

Stormont is the seat of the devolved parliament in Northern Ireland

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak told his Irish counterpart, Leo Varadkar, he was confident Northern Ireland's power-sharing government would be restored soon.
The two leaders spoke on the phone after the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) reached a deal with the UK government to restore power-sharing in Northern Ireland after an almost two-year power vacuum.

"The prime minister said he was confident that the steps taken paved the way for the restoration of power-sharing in the Northern Ireland executive," Sunak's spokeswoman told reporters in a readout of the call.

"Both leaders agreed it was in the people of Northern Ireland's interest to have a stable, devolved government, and this was also beneficial to relations between the UK and Ireland," she added.

Varadkar told Ireland's parliament that he hoped a new government would be formed by February 8.

Political stalemate prevented power-sharing

Northern Ireland has been without a functioning devolved government since February 2022, after the DUP withdrew from power-sharing.

The Irish nationalist party, Sinn Fein, then swept to a historic victory in assembly elections in May that year, entitling it to fill the post of the first minister.

However, the DUP, which came second, had refused to help form a government in protest of post-Brexit trading arrangements.

Under power-sharing rules established as part of the Irish peace process knows as the Good Friday agreement, the Northern Ireland administration must include both British unionists and Irish nationalists.

The DUP argued the Northern Ireland Protocol agreed by London and the European Union as part of Brexit undermined Northern Ireland's position in the UK.

Reworked post-Brexit deal

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.

It left Northern Ireland without a functioning administration to make key decisions, putting pressure on stretched public services.

The UK government has agreed to give Northern Ireland more than 3 billion pounds (€3.5 billion, $3.8 billion) for its public services, but only if the executive in Belfast gets back up and running.

That, and London's offer to implement various legislative assurances and other measures, looked to have won over the DUP.

Although the exact details of the deal have not yet been made public, DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson told BBC Radio Ulster the government could be restored within days "if the (UK) government moves with the speed that I believe they can."

The three other parties set to form a new executive in Northern Ireland - Sinn Fein, the Alliance Party and the Ulster Unionist Party - broadly welcomed the developments. They said they were ready to go back into government.

Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald said the appointment of Northern Ireland's first nationalist leader would be "a moment of great significance" that will bring a united Ireland closer.

"We are conscious that there is a huge amount of work to be done, that society has really suffered from the absence of government over the last two years," McDonald said.

lo/wmr (Reuters, AFP, AP)