Sinn Féin and the DUP have agreed a deal to restore devolution to Northern Ireland after a three-year absence. Speaking to reporters at Stormont this evening, Mary Lou McDonald, the Sinn Féin president, said her party had accepted the draft agreement unveiled by Julian Smith, the Northern Ireland Secretary, last night.
The DUP – without whose agreement there can be no power-sharing executive – had already endorsed the deal last night. That both parties have given it their imprimatur opens the door to a return to devolution as early as tonight or tomorrow.
The substance of the agreement allows both of the main parties to claim victory, particularly on the contentious questions of identity that have arguably been the biggest obstacle to reforming the executive. Sinn Féin has secured an Irish Language Act, while the DUP can point to its coexistence with a bill protecting Ulster Scots. There is also, to put it bluntly, lots and lots of money about to be thrown at the new executive.
Yet no matter how the big two dress up their decision to return to government, it is above all a reflection of their political weakness. The DUP has been denuded of influence at Westminster and reduced to eight MPs, while Sinn Féin has been afflicted by big swings away from it even in its nationalist heartlands.
Both will be hoping that the smaller parties of unionism and nationalism – the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP – take up the seats on the executive to which they are entitled, rather than rekindling the opposition they formed in 2016. While the UUP leadership is split, the thinking among senior members of the SDLP is that there is a public appetite for consensual, collaborative politics after three years of rancour and intransigence.
Should they choose to decline the ministerial posts to which they are entitled, however, the big two’s difficulties might only just be beginning.