The Democratic Unionist Party, Northern Ireland’s main Protestant party and one of its largest political forces, said on Tuesday it was willing to return to power-sharing after a nearly two-year boycott paralyzed decision-making in the region. .
After an internal meeting that lasted into the early hours of the morning, Jeffrey Donaldson, leader of the party known as the DUP, told a news conference that he had been tasked with supporting a new deal, negotiated with the British government, under which his party would return to the Northern Ireland governing assembly.
“Over the coming period we will work alongside others to build a prosperous and strong Northern Ireland within the union for this generation and those to come,” Donaldson said. He added, however, that the return to power-sharing was conditional on the British government legislating to enshrine a new set of measures that had not yet been made public.
The decision by the DUP, which represents those who want Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom, will be welcomed by many voters frustrated by the political deadlock, as well as the British and Irish governments, which have pressured the party to put end to stagnation.
But it could also herald a seismic shift in the territory’s history, opening the door for Sinn Fein, the Irish nationalist party, to hold for the first time the top political office of “prime minister” rather than “deputy prime minister.”
Sinn Féin is committed to the idea of a united Ireland, in which Northern Ireland would join the Republic of Ireland, rather than remaining part of the United Kingdom.
Tuesday’s announcement was welcomed by Chris Heaton-Harris, the Northern Ireland secretary, who thanked Donaldson and his colleagues and said he would honor his side of the deal.
“Now I believe that all the conditions are in place for the assembly to return, the parties with the right to form an executive meet today to discuss these matters and I hope to be able to close this agreement with the political parties as soon as possible. ” Heaton-Harris wrote in a social media post.
Mary Lou McDonald, president of Sinn Féin, said that after hearing Mr Donaldson’s public statement she was “optimistic” that the assembly would be back in session soon.
The breakthrough came after months of tense discussions between the DUP and the British government aimed at bringing unionists back to Stormont, the Northern Ireland assembly in Belfast that was launched as part of the Good Friday agreement that ended decades of sectarian violence in the region, known as the Troubles.
Stormont cannot function without the involvement of the territory’s two main parties, representing the Unionists, who are mainly Protestant, and the Nationalists, who are largely Roman Catholic.
The DUP walked out in February 2022 in protest over post-Brexit trade rules and civil servants have since kept core government functions running.
But the most important decisions require approval from Stormont, and Donaldson has been under increasing pressure to end the boycott, not only from the British and Irish governments, but also from voters in Northern Ireland, where the Services, including healthcare, have been under severe pressure. .
This month, tens of thousands of people took part in the biggest strike in Northern Ireland in recent times, as public sector workers walked out in protest over their wages, which have fallen below those of their colleagues in the rest of the country. United Kingdom due to political stalemate.
In December, the British government offered an additional £3.3 billion for Northern Ireland on the condition that the DUP returned to Stormont.
However, Donaldson has also been pressured by hardliners in his own party to stand firm, and the decision to return to government could put him on a collision course with them.
In May 2022, Sinn Féin overtook the DUP in the legislative elections to become the largest party in Northern Ireland. A few months earlier, the DUP had withdrawn from power-sharing in protest at post-Brexit trade rules, which imposed checks on some British goods entering Northern Ireland.
Unionists said those restrictions, enshrined in an agreement called the Northern Ireland Protocol, would drive a wedge between the territory and the rest of the United Kingdom, and called on the British government to virtually repeal them.
In 2023, Rishi Sunak, British Prime Minister, reached a new agreement with the European Union, known as the Windsor Framework Agreement, which wrested some concessions from Brussels. But they were not enough for the DUP
The party’s reservations now appear to have been resolved.
While many will welcome the prospect of restoring power sharing, the deal will remain a risk for Donaldson as hardline unionist critics oppose a compromise.
One of them, Jim Allister, leader of the Traditional Unionist Voice party, said in a social media post on Tuesday that “in betrayal of its own solemn promises, the DUP has relented” on trade rules for the Irish Sea. . Apparently “not a single word has been removed from the union-busting protocol,” he added.