Thursday 23 January 2020

Sinn Féin and DUP back deal to restore powersharing in North

  • Move confirms the return of devolved NI government
  • 'Powersharing requires everyone to step up' - McDonald
  • Sinn Féin say they will continue to work for a united Ireland
  • 'Deal recognises shared society' - Foster
  • SLDP confirm they will enter powersharing
Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald (centre), and deputy leader Michelle O'Neill (right) with party colleagues speak to the media in the Great Hall of Parliament Buildings, Stormont. Friday January 10, 2020. Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald (centre), and deputy leader Michelle O'Neill (right) with party colleagues speak to the media in the Great Hall of Parliament Buildings, Stormont. Friday January 10, 2020. Brian Lawless/PA Wire Newsdesk Newsdesk

Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald has announced that the party has agreed to back a deal to restore powersharing at Stormont – a move that confirms the return of devolved government in Northern Ireland after a three-year absence.

Ms McDonald said that "Sinn Fein has met today and has taken the decision to reenter the powersharing institutions and to nominate ministers to the powersharing executive".

The Dublin TD said she believes that "powersharing can work".

"It requires everyone to step up. Sinn Fein's commitment is to do all in our power to make this happen. We need to have an inclusive executive," Ms McDonald said.

DUP leader Arlene Foster. Picture: PA
DUP leader Arlene Foster. Picture: PA

"At these historic times we will also continue to work for Irish reunification and we want to ensure that the criteria for the triggering of an Irish unity poll are set out and that planning for Irish Unity is stepped up. Including the convening of the national forum to discuss and plan for the future.

"Three years ago, Martin McGuinness set down a challenge to all of us to get it right and deliver for all, for every single citizen. And now we need to go to work.

"We believe that the changes that have been achieved in the negotiations in the last year build on what was agreed in February 2018. We now have Acht Gaeilge with official legal recognition of the Irish language for the first time. An Irish language commissioner and increased Irish language funding."

The first action of the incoming executive will be to deliver pay parity for health workers, she added.

The DUP, the party blamed by both governments for holding up a deal in December, responded positively to the 'New Decade, New Approach' text published by the governments.

DUP leader Arlene Foster said the deal recognised there were people in Northern Ireland with an Irish identity and those with a British identity and that they were "ready to go back into Assembly".

Roundtable talks at Stormont House before Christmas failed to secure a breakthrough (Liam McBurney/PA)
Roundtable talks at Stormont House before Christmas failed to secure a breakthrough (Liam McBurney/PA)

"This is a deal that recognises that we live in a shared society, this is a deal that recognises that no one identity should be placed over another," she told BBC Radio Ulster.

"I very much hope that the Assembly can meet as quickly as possible so that we can get back to do what we need to do and, indeed, get Northern Ireland moving again."

The SDLP has also confirmed it will enter into the powersharing agreement.

Earlier today, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar urged all parties to sign up to a new agreement to restore the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive.

Mr Varadkar was speaking after the Irish and British governments last night published proposals to break the three-year deadlock at Stormont.

The Taoiseach said he had spoken to Ms McDonald about the deal this morning.

"I think this is the opportunity. I'd really appeal to all of the parties now to sign up to the agreement, to come on board, to have the Assembly meeting again, to have the Executive up and running and crucially to have the North-South Ministerial Council (NSMC) operating again."

Mr Varadkar said re-establishing the NSMC would allow ministers on both sides of the border to press ahead with plans for a number of all-island infrastructure projects and more cooperation on Health.

He identified projects including the A5 road to Derry and Letterkenny; the Ulster Canal; cross-border greenways; upgrading Dublin-Belfast train line; and building a university in Derry to link up with Letterkenny IT.

"That opportunity is now there for us to seize. This government is up for it, the Irish government is up for it and the British government is too and I'd really appeal to all of the parties now to come on board and let's get working again," Mr Varadkar added

The suggested deal came as Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith wrote to the speaker of the defunct Assembly requesting him to convene a sitting on Friday - so issuing a challenge to the parties to turn up and get back to business.

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

That dispute subsequently widened to take in more traditional wrangles on matters such as the Irish language and the thorny legacy of the Troubles.

The deal represents the governments' joint assessment of how long-standing wrangles can be resolved.

The document includes:

  • A new office for identity and cultural expression will promote diversity and inclusion.
  • Commissioners will protect the Irish and Ulster Scots languages which are cherished by Sinn Fein and the DUP.
  • The long impasse on the Irish language issue revolved around whether provisions would be enacted as a stand-alone piece of legislation or as part of a broader piece of legislation. The governments have proposed to do it by amending the 1998 Northern Ireland Act with three separate bills - one specifically dedicated to provisions for the Irish language.
  • Reform of the petition of concern voting mechanism, which was originally designed to protect minority rights in Assembly votes.
  • Improvements in how civil servants, special advisers and ministers conduct themselves following the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal which led to the Assembly collapse.
  • More time to appoint a replacement if a Stormont First or Deputy First Minister resigns, as Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness did three years ago, bringing down the institutions.

Reacting to the publication, Ms Foster said: "On balance we believe there is a basis upon which the Assembly and Executive can (be) re-established in a fair and balanced way."

She added: "This is not a perfect deal and 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."

Tánaiste Simon Coveney said of the deal to restore the Northern Ireland institutions: "history is being made today."

He also praised the family of murdered journalist Lyra McKee and said it was that tragedy that kick-started the formal talks again.

He said both the DUP and Sinn Féin are committed to re-entering an Executive and the Stormont Assembly and he hopes the other parties will join them.

"What is most important about that is that the people of Northern Ireland will have a government again, will have political leaders that can make decisions for them, and that they will no longer have to rely on a really an unacceptable lack of governance."

He said "of course there's relief" that a deal has been reached and thanked his own team, that of the British government and the party negotiators.

"We have put an enormous amount of time into trying to get to where we are now."

Mr Coveney added: "This process started again formally about nine months ago, after the tragic murder of of Lyra McKee.

"I spoke to Lyra's sister this morning, who I think was really relieved and excited about the prospect of a functioning Stormont again."

He said that "tells you a lot about the kind of family they are and the kind of person she is."

Mr Coveney said the tragedy "was an injection of urgency into the political system. We began a formal talks process on the back of that."

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