Northern Ireland Executive Restored After Party Breakthrough

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Northern Ireland’s power-sharing executive was restored with the installment of a First Minister and Deputy First Minister, resolving a stand-off that threatened to derail the government at a critical time after Brexit.

The Democratic Unionist Party nominated Paul Givan as First Minister and Sinn Fein nominated Michelle O’Neill as Deputy First Minister on Thursday, ending a dispute over giving more weight to the Irish language in the region.

The breakthrough came after the U.K. said it would push laws on Irish language and identity through Parliament in Westminster if Northern Ireland’s Assembly didn’t do so by the end of September.

Tensions are running high over the U.K.’s divorce deal with the European Union, which left Northern Ireland in a hybrid position inside the bloc’s customs union and Britain’s internal market. The settlement impacts longstanding issues of identity -- both nationalist and unionist -- that dominate the region’s politics.

A commitment on the use of the Irish language was part of a deal which paved the way for the restoration of the region’s assembly in 2020 after a three-year suspension. But when First Minister Arlene Foster stepped down on Monday, the planned legislation became a key stumbling block in negotiations for the executive to continue without the need for elections.

Standoff

Her resignation meant the region’s two largest parties had seven days to nominate and endorse a First Minister and Deputy First Minister, or U.K. Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis may be forced to call a new poll.

Sinn Fein had indicated legislation on cultural issues needed to be approved by ministers before a July 10 recess in order for them to engage in the leadership process and return to power-sharing with the DUP. It asked the British government to introduce the legislation in Westminster.

The unionist DUP had indicated it couldn’t commit to a definite time-frame.

Following the intervention by Lewis, the DUP leader Edwin Poots said Givan would be nominated for First Minister “at the earliest opportunity.”

The legislation on Irish language and identity “should be implemented, in all its parts,” he said. “Importantly though, the place for such legislation is the NI Assembly.”

‘Participate Fully’

Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald said that based on the agreement with the British government, the party would nominate O’Neill as Deputy First Minister and would “participate fully in the five party executive.” O’Neill previously held the position under Foster.

Ireland’s Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said implementation of the package of language and identity legislation would “be better done” in Northern Ireland’s Assembly, but welcomed the plan to push it through Westminster “if necessary.”

The stability of Northern Ireland’s Executive and institutions are “critical for peace and progress,” Ireland’s Prime Minister Micheal Martin said on Twitter.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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