By Ian Graham
BELFAST (Reuters) – Northern Ireland’s largest pro-British party, the Democratic Unionist Party, said it believed the draft deal published by the British and Irish governments on Thursday provided a basis upon which the regional assembly can be re-established.
The positive response came less than one hour after the two governments urged all parties to back the deal to restore devolved government for the first time in three years or risk fresh elections in the British-run region if Monday’s deadline for agreement passes.
Sinn Fein, the largest Irish nationalist party, withdrew from the power-sharing government exactly three years ago, saying it was not being treated equally by the DUP. Since then both parties have blamed each other for a number of failed attempts to break the deadlock.
The DUP’s backing is significant as the British and Irish government publicly blamed the party for failing to reach agreement late last year. Sinn Fein’s party leadership would meet on Friday to assess the draft, the party said.
DUP leader Arlene Foster said in a statement that on balance there “is a basis upon which the Assembly and Executive can be re-established in a fair and balanced way.”
“This is not a perfect deal and there are elements within it which we recognize represent compromise outcomes.”
Britain’s Northern Ireland Minister Julian Smith said he asked the speaker of the house to recall the regional assembly on Friday and that all parties were looking very seriously at the deal. He told them they had “one chance to get this right.”
The importance of the devolved administration has increased following a provision in Britain’s European Union withdrawal deal that will give the assembly the right every four years to consider whether to maintain alignment with EU market rules.
Throughout the talks Sinn Fein sought increased rights for Irish speakers and a reform of the system of governance to avoid the DUP, the largest party, from blocking legislation using a clause from the 1998 peace deal to protect minority rights.
The draft deal offers a new cultural framework to “protect and enhance” the Irish language as well as the Ulster Scots language, while meaningful reform of the so-called ‘petition of concern’ would mean it would no longer be a veto for one party.
“There is no such thing as a perfect deal in a situation like this,” Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney told a news conference.
“There will be reasons in this deal for every party, if they want to find them, to be uncomfortable, to be negative and to look for excuses not to be part of this executive but we would ask all parties to find reasons to be part of it.”
(Reporting by Ian Graham in Belfast and Padraic Halpin in Dublin; Editing by Catherine Evans and Grant McCool)