N.Ireland assembly reopens after 3-year deadlock


Belfast (AFP)

Northern Ireland's assembly reopened on Saturday following three-year's of political deadlock after rival nationalist and unionist parties agreed to a new power-sharing deal with Brexit looming.

Democratic Unionist Party leader Arlene Foster was later appointed as first minister, and effective head of government, while Republican Sinn Fein's Michelle O'Neill will serve as her deputy.

The region's devolved assembly at Stormont collapsed in January 2017 over a scandal caused by the runaway costs of a renewable energy scheme.

Its 90 members have since sat only for one-off sessions, with numerous rounds of acrimonious negotiations failing to reach a solution, leaving basic services unattended.

But they returned on Saturday after Pro-Irish republicans and pro-British unionists struck a deal on Friday under the threat of a new regional election if they missed the latest deadline to reconvene on Monday.

Foster said she was "deeply humbled" to be reinstalled as first minister, heading a new executive that features several prominent women.

"The last three years have focused too much on division and recrimination," she said.

"There's plenty of blame to go around but the time has come to move forward with resolution."

The UK government in London promised a large cash injection into the small but strategically important province if the republican Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) found an agreement.

Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald told reporters that the party was "ready to do business" after the deal was agreed.

Foster called the draft power-sharing agreement "fair", while Downing Street said it was "a balanced package," adding that the precise amount of new funding would be spelled out when agreement was reached.

"History is being made," said Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney after both sides confirmed their support for the devolved government.

It can help "show that politics in Northern Ireland can be a force for good and brings people together," he said.

- 'Extremely positive' -

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called the breakthrough "an extremely positive development for the people of Northern Ireland".

Friday's deal came with thousands of the region's healthcare workers on strike.

The latest talks were launched in the wake of a December 12 UK general election that saw both the DUP and Sinn Fein lose votes to smaller groups.

Analysts attributed the losses to voter frustration at their inability to reach a compromise that could let a government in Belfast take care of the region's daily needs.

A 1998 peace accord that ended three decades of violence over British rule of Northern Ireland in which thousands died requires the two main parties to share power.

The lack of an executive was especially fraught with danger for the region because of historic changes to its trade rules being imposed by Britain's pending withdrawal from the European Union.

Northern Ireland's border with the Republic of Ireland becomes a UK-EU land frontier on Brexit.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson's EU withdrawal agreement puts pressure on local authorities to maintain frictionless trade while preserving an open border on the island of Ireland.

Negotiations to revive Stormont have been stuck on disagreements over the use of the Irish language and a mechanism giving minority parties veto rights.

The draft accord requires the executive "to provide official recognition of the status of the Irish language in Northern Ireland" and to "respect the freedom of all persons... to choose, affirm, maintain and develop their national and cultural identity".

It also eliminates the veto mechanism and compels the parties to build consensus on issues of dispute.

The UK government additionally promises to deliver a new financial package for the region that allows outstanding public sector salaries to be paid.