Northern Ireland’s main parties, Sinn Féin and the DUP, have backed proposals for the restoration of power-sharing three years after the collapse of the executive at Stormont.
Northern Ireland could, conceivably, have a new government by this week-end.
Following a meeting of its Ard Chomhairle Sinn Féin President Mary Lou McDonald TD, speaking at a news conference in the Great Hall at Stormont, said her party backs the proposals of the Irish and British governments and will re-enter the Assembly and nominate ministers.
DUP leader Arlene Foster, signalling her party’s earlier acceptance, said said there was a basis to re-establish the devolved institutions in a “fair and balanced way”.
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said his party will take up the ministerial positions to which it is entitled under the d’Hondt proportional allocation of power system.
Proceedings at Stormont could even resume as Saturday.
Ms McDonald said: “We believe that the changes which have been achieved in the negotiations over the last year build on what was agreed in February 2019.”
She said there is now “official legal recognition of the Irish language for the first time” and reform of the petition of concern to “end its misuse as a veto by one political party”.
Tánaiste Simon Coveney said that history was being made following the decision by the two main parties to re-enter Stormont.
The Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade said the last three years had been difficult but appeared to be coming to a successful conclusion and the people of Northern Ireland would have a government again.
Earlier the Tánaiste reminded people about the murder of 29-year old journalist Lyra McKee and the overwhelming desire it generated for politicians to set aside their differences and find agreement on a way forward.
The Irish and UK governments presented the five main parties with the deal and an ultimatum that its rejection would mean new Assembly elections being called on Monday. SF and the DUP have seen their vote shrink in Northern Ireland’s recent Westminster elections and the European Parliament elections.
It is more than three years now since the Stormont Assembly collapsed.
The DUP and Sinn Féin have taken part in talks to reconvene the Assembly, but to no avail.
Tánaiste Simon Coveney and Northern Ireland secretary Julian Smith presented the proposal to the five parties, in the hope that an Assembly can be reconvened as early as today.
Smith has warned that if it doesn’t return by Monday 13 January, there would be fresh elections in Northern Ireland.
The DUP have indicated they will support the deal with leader Arlene Foster saying although it is not a perfect deal, on balance they believe there is a basis to revive the Executive “in a fair and balanced way”.
Sinn Féin have said they would consider the details of the proposal today. The party has been adamant that a standalone Irish Language Act needed to be included in any deal.
While there is no Irish Language Act, the deal includes the establishment of an Irish Language Commissioner “to recognise, support, protect and enhance the development of the Irish language in Northern Ireland”.
Speaking on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland, Coveney said that one of the “breakthroughs” of the deal was the legal recognition given to the Irish language and the establishment of the Irish Language Commissioner.
The deal also looks at the citizenship question that has caused trouble for Emma DeSouza.
A UK tribunal ruled that Derry-born Emma DeSouza was legally British, despite identifying as Irish from birth and having an Irish passport.
The issue came to light when Emma’s US husband Jake applied for an EEA residence card through the UK government to live in Northern Ireland. It argued that because DeSouza was British, and not Irish, her husband couldn’t apply for the EEA card, which doesn’t include the UK.
The proposal says that the change would mean that “eligible family members of the people of Northern Ireland will be able to apply for UK immigration status on broadly the same terms as the family members of Irish citizens in the UK”.
This immigration status will be available to the family members of all the people of Northern Ireland, no matter whether they hold British or Irish citizenship or both, no matter how they identify.
Additional funding is being offered such as healthcare funding to address the Northern Ireland nurses’ pay dispute.
Nurses in Northern Ireland had been due to strike today over pay conditions that see them paid less than their counterparts in Great Britain.
The proposal says that it will be “providing additional funding for the Executive in 2020/21 to give the Executive time to place Northern Ireland’s finances on a sustainable footing, and address its priorities, such as delivering parity with England and Wales for nurses’ pay – bringing an end to the ongoing nurses’ pay dispute”.
There will also be funding to support mental health services in Northern Ireland over the next three years, and increased funding for capital infrastructure projects.
Under the new deal, there will also be “meaningful reform of the petition of concern bringing it closer to its original role, as conceived of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement and as a means of building consensus. It will not be a veto for any one party”.
The threshold for a petition of concern will remain at 30 MLAs, but one will only be triggered by members from two or more parties.
Smith has invited the Speaker to reconvene Stormont today, in the hope that the parties will have agreed to the proposal.
The DUP has already agreed to the proposal as published, and Foster has said that they are ready to attend the Assembly today if the other parties agree to the same. “We stand ready to be a part of that.”
When Coveney was asked if it’s possible for the parties to change parts of the published proposal, he said: “We have effectively been changing this document since mid-summer,” adding that it’s been changed right up until yesterday evening.
“If the parties look for positives in this deal, there’s plenty there… and if parties look to find negatives they will find this too because there are a lot of (contentious issues covered).”
When asked whether the deadline of Monday to revive the Stormont Assembly could be extended, Coveney said that “the straight answer to that question is no”.
The legislation giving powers to civil servants runs out on Monday, he said, so if there’s no deal and no Executive in place by Monday, there will be Assembly elections.