LONDON — Legislators returned to Northern Ireland’s assembly Saturday for the first time in three years, after a deal was struck to restore the divided region’s mothballed power-sharing government.
Lawmakers were gathering in Belfast to choose a coalition executive, led by the pro-British Democratic Unionist Party and the Irish nationalists Sinn Fein.
After three years of acrimony that left Northern Ireland with a stack of unresolved issues and a growing public-sector crisis, the parties agreed Friday to a deal brokered by the U.K. and Irish governments to revive the 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 set up after a 1998 peace accord 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 its Irish nationalists, the two communities whose conflicting identities and aspirations fueled years of violence in which more than 3,000 people died.
Since 2017, Northern Ireland has been run by civil servants with limited powers to make big decisions. Major projects have been put on hold -- all in the shadow of the U.K.’s impending departure from the European Union on Jan. 31, which has serious implications for the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, an EU member.
Northern Ireland has the U.K.’s only land border with an EU member country and Brexit will challenge the status of the currently invisible frontier. That could potentially push Northern Ireland into a closer embrace with its southern neighbor, Ireland, so both the DUP and Sinn Fein want a say on what happens next.
Northern Ireland also faced a Monday deadline to restore the government or be required to hold a new election for the assembly that could see Sinn Fein and the DUP lose ground to less intransigent parties.
With that deadline looming, the parties agreed to return to government.
“We now have the basis to restore power-sharing, and we're up for that," Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald said Friday.
DUP leader Arlene Foster — who is likely to become Northern Ireland’s first minister, the role she held before the government collapsed — called the agreement “a fair and balanced deal.”
The smaller SDLP and Alliance parties also said they would return to the assembly.
The new agreement 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 British unionists.
The deal also promises U.K. government funds for big infrastructure projects and Northern Ireland’s cash-strapped public services. Northern Ireland’s health service has been has been particularly hard hit by the political vacuum, and nurses have staged a series of strikes to protest staffing shortages and eroding salaries.