After 3 years, N Ireland parties agree return to government

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SDLP or Social Democratic and Labour Party leader Colum Eastwood, left and deputy leader Nichola Mallon speak to the media in the Great Hall of Parliament Buildings, Stormont, in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Friday, Jan. 10, 2020. Northern Ireland’s main political parties met on Friday to decide whether to accept a deal to restore the Belfast-based government that collapsed three years ago. (Brian Lawless/ PA via AP)

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LONDON (AP) — Northern Ireland’s major political parties agreed Friday to restore the Belfast-based government, three years after it collapsed in acrimony and left 1.8 million people with no regional government.

Northern Ireland — part of the U.K. along with England, Wales and Scotland — has been without a functioning administration since the power-sharing government fell apart in January 2017 over a botched green-energy project. The rift soon widened to broader cultural and political issues separating Northern Ireland’s British unionists and Irish nationalists.

But with a deadline of Monday looming to get back to work or face new elections, the pro-British Democratic Unionist Party and Irish nationalists Sinn Fein said they had agreed to a draft deal brokered by the British and Irish governments.

Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald said the party’s ruling council had “taken the decision to re-enter the power-sharing institutions and to nominate ministers to the power-sharing executive.”

“We are ready to do business.”

The main pro-British group, the Democratic Unionist Party, earlier said the agreement was “not a perfect deal,” but could be supported.

“On balance we believe there is a basis upon which the assembly and executive can be re-established in a fair and balanced way,” said DUP leader Arlene Foster.

The breakthrough came when, after several days of intense talks, the British and Irish governments late Thursday published a draft proposal to revive the Northern Ireland Assembly and executive.

“Now is decision time,” said the U.K.’s Northern Ireland Secretary, Julian Smith. “We have had three years of talks and there is finally a good deal on the table that all parties can support.”

Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney also urged acceptance, saying it was time “politicians stepped up and fully represented their constituents.”

“Forget the language of win or lose. This is a deal filled with compromises,” he said.

Several previous attempts to restore power-sharing between Sinn Fein and the DUP had come to nothing.

But the U.K.’s looming departure from the European Union, due on Jan. 31, has given new urgency to attempts to restore the government. Northern Ireland has the U.K.’s only border with an EU member country, and Brexit will challenge the status of the currently invisible frontier, potentially pushing Northern Ireland into a closer embrace with its southern member, the Republic of Ireland. Both of the two main parties — the DUP and Sinn Fein — want a say on what happens next.

Northern Ireland also faced a Jan. 13 deadline to restore the government or face new elections for the assembly that could see Sinn Fein and the DUP lose ground to less intransigent parties.

The deal addresses divisive social and cultural issues in Northern Ireland, as well as the increasingly parlous state of its public finances.

It includes measures to protect the Irish language, which is important to nationalists, as well as the Ulster Scots tongue that is the heritage of some British unionists.

The agreement also promises U.K. government funds for big infrastructure projects and Northern Ireland’s cash-strapped public services.

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