N. Ireland parties revive power-sharing talks after UK vote

Belfast (AFP) –


Northern Ireland's squabbling parties met Monday in the hope of reviving their power-sharing regional government after three years, with the UK election having cleared the path to Brexit.

The politically and socially volatile province has been without an administration since January 2017.

The power-sharing executive between the pro-British, conservative Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and left-wing Irish republicans Sinn Fein crumbled in a breakdown of trust following a misspending scandal.

But the United Kingdom's impending exit from the European Union has given the parties new impetus to find common ground.

Thursday's general election returned a majority Conservative government, paving the way for the UK to leave the EU on January 31.

Brexit's implications for Northern Ireland and the border with the Irish Republic, an EU member state, have been the most contentious part of the departure process.

The Brexit deal agreed between London and Brussels would see Northern Ireland diverge from mainland Britain and retain some EU rules, subject to four-yearly approval of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

"The election has changed things very dramatically," Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald told BBC radio.

The UK election in 2017 stripped then-prime minister Theresa May of her majority in the British parliament, forcing her into an alliance with the DUP.

The DUP kingmakers wielded an outsized influence in London during the intense Brexit negotiations.

But the party lost that role in Thursday's election which Prime Minister Boris Johnson a thumping majority.

"I hope now that their attention can come back home and that we can together lift what needs to be lifted," said McDonald.

"The fact that the British government is identifying the restoration of government in the North as a key priority, I hope they're true to that."

- 'New arithmetic' -

Some analysts agreed that Thursday's election outcome could alter the power dynamic in the negotiations on forming a new executive at Stormont in Belfast.

"The new arithmetic at Westminster will give the DUP much greater incentive to reach a deal with Sinn Fein," Queen's University Belfast politics lecturer Jamie Pow told AFP.

"If it wants to remain relevant, it will need to show voters that it can deliver."

Northern Ireland returns 18 MPs to the 650-member British parliament and the DUP fell back from 10 seats to eight on Thursday, losing their Westminster frontman Nigel Dodds, the party's deputy leader.

Sinn Fein won seven seats but does not take them up as it does not recognise the British parliament's jurisdiction over Northern Ireland.

But both main parties reduced their overall vote share as more moderate movements gained ground -- an apparent response to frustrations over stalling Stormont talks.

The deadlock between the two main parties may begin to loosen as they grow wary of sustaining losses in a looming Northern Ireland Assembly election.

Britain's Northern Ireland secretary has promised to call fresh regional elections if the executive is not restored by January 13.

Northern Ireland has been run by civil servants for three years, in the absence of an executive.

"I hope that change is in the air," DUP leader Arlene Foster told BBC radio.

"I will come to the table in a way that allows us to bring forward a deal that is that is balanced, that is proportional, that represents the fact that there are divided communities in Northern Ireland and that all of those communities must have a place."