Northern Ireland to restore government after UK parliament approves deal

FILE PHOTO: PMQs at the House of Commons in London

By Andrew MacAskill and Amanda Ferguson

LONDON/BELFAST (Reuters) -Northern Ireland is set to elect a government on Saturday for the first time in two years after the British parliament agreed to revamp post-Brexit trade rules to break a political stalemate.

In a historic first, Irish nationalists Sinn Fein are set to take the First Minister role after securing the most seats in the British region's 2022 election.

Northern Ireland has been without devolved government since the pro-British Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) walked out in protest over the post-Brexit trade rules, which it said created barriers with the rest of the United Kingdom and undermined Northern Ireland's place in it.

The deal represents a political win for British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who managed a breakthrough that eluded his predecessor Boris Johnson, and helps draw a line under years of wrangling over Northern Ireland's post-Brexit trading arrangements.

It also follows lobbying from U.S. President Joe Biden, who visited Northern Ireland last year.

"I am delighted that the Democratic Unionist Party have taken this next step," Britain's Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris said in a statement.

Britain's parliament on Thursday approved without formal votes a revamp of rules governing Northern Ireland trade that were negotiated between the British government and the DUP.

The measures include eliminating any physical checks when goods move within the so-called UK internal market system and that more than 80% of all goods from Britain to Northern Ireland would not face checks.

Shortly after the vote, the DUP formally requested a sitting of Northern Ireland's parliament in order to form a power-sharing government, a key part of a 1998 peace deal that ended decades of sectarian and political violence between Irish nationalists seeking a united Ireland, pro-British unionists and the British Army.

"Following the passage of very important legislation ... I have this afternoon written to the Speaker of the Assembly to indicate that there now exists a basis upon which the Northern Ireland Assembly can meet ... and fill the offices of First and Deputy First Ministers and Executive Ministers," party leader Jeffrey Donaldson said in a statement.

Donaldson said he would meet with the leaders of the other main political parties on Friday to discuss the new power-sharing government. His party is set to take the Deputy First Minister role, which has the same power as First Minister.

The breakthrough came after the government shut-down in recent weeks triggered mass strikes by public sector workers seeking delayed pay increases.

Opposition to the deal has been limited, with some criticism within the DUP and fierce opposition by their smaller rival, Traditional Unionist Voice.

Irish nationalists the SDLP said they opposed the deal as it played down the role of the Republic of Ireland in Northern Ireland's economy.

(Reporting by William James and Andrew MacAskill; Additional reporting by Amanda Ferguson in Belfast; Writing by Conor Humphries; Editing by Hugh Lawson and Angus MacSwan)