Northern Ireland’s largest British unionist party has agreed to end a boycott that left the region’s people without a power-sharing administration for two years, it said Tuesday — a breakthrough that could see the shuttered Belfast government restored within days.
After a late-night meeting, Democratic Unionist Party leader Jeffrey Donaldson said the party’s executive has backed proposals to return to the government. He said agreements reached with the U.K. government in London “provide a basis for our party to nominate members to the Northern Ireland Executive, thus seeing the restoration of the locally elected institutions.”
The breakthrough came after the U.K. government last week gave Northern Ireland politicians until Feb. 8 to restore the collapsed government in Belfast or face new elections.
“All the conditions are in place for the Assembly to return,” Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris said. “The parties entitled to form an Executive are meeting today to discuss these matters, and I hope to be able to finalize this deal with the political parties as soon as possible.”
The DUP walked out in February 2022 in a dispute over post-Brexit trade rules. Ever since, it has refused to return to the government with the Irish nationalist party Sinn Fein. Under power-sharing rules established as part of Northern Ireland’s peace process, the administration must include both British unionists and Irish nationalists.
The walkout left Northern Ireland’s 1.9 million people without a functioning administration to make key decisions as the cost of living soared and backlogs strained the creaking public health system.
Teachers, nurses and other public sector workers in Northern Ireland staged a 24-hour strike this month calling on politicians to return to the government and give them a long-delayed pay raise. The British government has agreed to give Northern Ireland more than 3 billion pounds ($3.8 billion) for its public services, but only if the executive in Belfast gets back up and running.
The DUP quit the government in opposition to the new trade rules put in place after the U.K. left the European Union in 2020 that imposed customs checks and other hurdles on goods moving to Northern Ireland from the rest of the U.K.
The checks were imposed to maintain an open border between the north and its EU neighbor, the Republic of Ireland, a key pillar of Northern Ireland’s peace process. The DUP, though, says the new east-west customs border undermines Northern Ireland’s place in the U.K.
In February 2023, the U.K. and the EU agreed on a deal to ease customs checks and other hurdles for goods moving to Northern Ireland from the rest of the U.K. But it was not enough for the DUP, which continued its government boycott.
Donaldson said further measures agreed by the British government would “remove checks for goods moving within the U.K. and remaining in Northern Ireland and will end Northern Ireland automatically following future EU laws.”
The DUP’s decision faces opposition from some hard-line unionists, who fiercely guard Northern Ireland’s place in the U.K. and say even light-touch post-Brexit checks create a de facto internal trade barrier. Dozens of protesters gathered outside the DUP meeting venue outside Belfast late Monday, waving placards saying, “Stop DUP sellout.”
Donaldson said last week that he had received threats over his attempts to negotiate a return to the government.
“I think my party has displayed far more courage than those who threaten or try to bully or try to misrepresent us,” he said Tuesday. “We are determined to take our place in taking Northern Ireland forward.”