Northern Ireland’s three-year political deadlock could finally be coming to an end after the UK and Irish governments published a draft deal to restore power-sharing in Belfast.
The Assembly at Stormont – Northern Ireland’s seat of power – will be recalled on Friday to see if parties sign up.
Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith, the third Tory minister to work on a deal, announced the late-night breakthrough yesterday.
If agreed, it means Northern Irish politicians will finally have a full say over their own affairs once again. And it will mean Northern Ireland gets a “major financial package” from the UK government.
It comes exactly three years since the devolved government collapsed following the resignation of late deputy first minister Martin McGuinness.
The Assembly failed to function since, with neither unionists DUP or nationalists Sinn Fein – who must agree to share power under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement – able to compromise.
While it lay in ruins, MPs at Westminster stepped in and legalised gay marriage and abortion in the region – with the first same-sex unions expected in the week of Valentine’s Day.
Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith announced the plans alongside Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney at a press conference outside the grand Stormont building on Thursday night.
He said he had asked the speaker of the defunct house to hold a sitting on Friday morning, without the Stormont parties having yet agreed to all the proposals.
The DUP, the party blamed by both governments for holding up a deal in December, responded positively to the text – called ‘New Decade, New Approach’.
Party leader Arlene Foster said there was a basis to re-establish the devolved institutions in a “fair and balanced way”.
All eyes now turn to Sinn Fein, whose president Mary Lou McDonald said: “We are studying the text and will give it careful consideration.”
It is understood that smaller parties including SDLP, Ulster Unionists and Alliance Party were also involved in talks although it is not known how much influence they have had.
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.
“Now is decision time,” Mr Smith said as he stood in front of Parliament Buildings on Thursday night.
“We have had three years of talks, finally there is good deal on the table that all parties can support and on that basis I have tonight written to the speaker of this Assembly and asked him to recall it tomorrow to enable the restoration of the executive before the weekend.
“I urge all parties to come here tomorrow and serve the people of Northern Ireland.”
Power-sharing talks in Northern Ireland were held up repeatedly while crisis raged in Westminster – including a general election which made the DUP kingmakers in 2017.
But critics of Boris Johnson say his Brexit deal and thumping majority now represent a clear threat to the current way of life which Northern Ireland politicians must address.
The deal claims it will bring Northern Ireland out of the EU ‘whole and entire’ with the rest of the UK.
But because Northern Ireland’s fragile coalition relies on free trade with the Republic of Ireland, compromises have had to be made to keep that open.
Any goods travelling from Britain to Northern Ireland that are “at risk” of travelling into the EU later on will need full EU customs checks.
That means businesses exporting from, say, Liverpool to Belfast will have to fill out customs forms in order to carry on doing business.
Separately firms will also face fees of at least 55 Euros (£47) at border inspection posts when sending “products of animal origin” from Britain to Northern Ireland.
Key dates in the crisis in Northern Ireland
January 2017: Stormont’s Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness quits the powersharing administration in protest against DUP First Minister Arlene Foster’s handling of a botched green energy scheme – the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI). The ministerial executive falls a week later and a snap election is called. A public inquiry is ordered into the RHI scandal.
March 2017: Sinn Fein makes major gains in the snap Assembly election, cutting what was a 10-seat gap from the DUP to a solitary seat. The long-standing unionist majority within the Assembly goes. Mr McGuinness dies from a rare heart condition. A statutory deadline to form a new executive within three weeks of the election falls as the parties fail to agree a basis for re-entering government together.
June 2017: The DUP emerge from the election as Westminster kingmakers and agree a confidence and supply arrangement to prop up Ms May’s minority government.
October 2017: Talks resume but are largely confined to engagement between the two main parties. Stormont’s smaller parties claim they are being kept in the dark.
February 2018: Theresa May and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar travel to Stormont amid growing expectation a deal could be close. Their visit fails to deliver a breakthrough. A few days later, talks break down in acrimony amid claims from Sinn Fein that the DUP had agreed a deal to return to Stormont, only to get cold feet. The DUP denies the claims.
April 2019: A month of fresh talks are triggered following the dissident republican killing of journalist Lyra McKee in Londonderry when a bullet aimed at police goes astray.
July 2019: Amid the slow collapse of Prime Minister Theresa May’s Government, Parliament legislates to legalise abortion and same-sex marriage as part of an Executive Formation Act. Mrs May’s replacement as Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, holds a private dinner with senior DUP figures and visits Stormont to meet other party leaders. A range of interest groups including Irish language activists protest outside.
December 2019: Another general election sees the DUP lose two MPs, including former Westminster leader Nigel Dodds. The DUP and Sinn Fein’s share of the vote drops significantly compared to the 2017 general election – by 5.4% and 6.7% respectively – while the cross-community and anti-Brexit Alliance party enjoys a bounce in the polls. New Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith and Mr Coveney lead renewed negotiations at Stormont.
January 2020: Talks resume after a pause for Christmas. After a week of intensive engagements, the two governments present a suggested deal to the five parties and urge them to sign up and re-enter the executive immediately.