Northern Ireland's politicians return to work after three-year standoff

British and Irish leaders welcomed the return of a power-sharing government

BELFAST, NORTHERN IRELAND - JANUARY 11: A general view of the Northern Ireland Executive Assembly sitting in their chamber room as the power sharing executive returned to power for the first time in three years on January 11, 2020 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. The power sharing executive government has not sat at Stormont in three years after the assembly was dissolved following the resignation of the former Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness. The two main parties, Sinn Fein and the DUP, agreed to once again nominate First and Deputy First Ministers today. DUP leader Arlene Foster has been appointed as Northern Ireland's First Minister and Deputy Leader of Sinn Fein Michelle O'Neill has been appointed as Northern Ireland's Deputy First Minister.  (Photo by Kelvin Boyes - Pool/Getty Images)
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Northern Ireland’s main political parties sat down together in Belfast on Saturday to form a power-sharing government and end a three-year standoff that threatened a key part of the province’s 1998 peace settlement.

Arlene Foster, the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, was sworn in as First Minister at a special sitting of the 90-member body at Stormont’s Parliament Buildings.

Michelle O’Neill, the Vice President of Sinn Fein, was sworn in as Deputy First Minister.

Naomi Long, leader of the centrist, non-sectarian Alliance Party, will be Justice Minister, and in a show of cross-party support, Sinn Fein’s Alex Maskey was elected as Speaker with DUP backing.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson welcomed the formation of the governing executive and said in a statement it could “now get on with the job of delivering much-needed reforms to the health service, education and justice”.

The Irish Taoiseach, or prime minister, Leo Varadkar said the parties and politicians were “to be commended for their decision to put the people they represent first and make measured compromises to reach a deal.”

The DUP is the largest group in the reformed Assembly, followed by Sinn Fein.

Sinn Fein, the largest nationalist party, withdrew from the power-sharing government three years ago, saying it was not being treated equally by the unionist DUP. Since then, both parties have blamed each other for failed attempts to break the deadlock.

The restoration of the devolved administration came after the British and Irish governments on Thursday brokered a deal to end the suspension of the Assembly.

The deal offers a new cultural framework to “protect and enhance” the Irish and Ulster Scots languages. It also offers reform of a clause from the 1998 peace deal that was meant to ensure cross-community support on controversial issues but was frequently used as a veto over assembly decisions.

The importance of the devolved administration has increased because a provision in Britain’s Brexit withdrawal deal will give the Assembly the right every four years to consider whether to maintain alignment with EU market rules.

The Assembly now recovers administrative responsibility for Northern Ireland, which suffered through three decades of sectarian violence before the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.