LONDON (AP) — Northern Ireland got new government leaders on Thursday after the two biggest parties broke a standoff that had threatened to scuttle the Protestant-Catholic power-sharing administration.
Paul Givan of the pro-British Democratic Unionist Party was confirmed as first minister, with Michelle O’Neill of Irish nationalist party Sinn Fein reappointed deputy first minister.
Accepting the nomination at a sitting of the Northern Ireland Assembly, Givan said politicians “must recognize there is more in common than separates us.”
Sinn Fein had threatened not to fill the post of deputy because of a feud about protections for the Irish language. That would have mothballed the administration — under the power-sharing arrangements set up as part of Northern Ireland’s peace accord, a government can’t be formed unless both roles are filled.
The language issue cuts to the heart of tensions between Northern Ireland’s mostly Catholic nationalists, who see themselves as Irish, and Protestants, who largely identify as British.
The Northern Ireland Assembly, in which the DUP is the largest party, has failed to pass a law ensuring protections for the Irish and Ulster Scots languages, despite the power-sharing parties agreeing last year to do so.
But after crisis talks with the two parties, the British government said early Thursday it would step in and pass the legislation in the U.K. Parliament if the Belfast assembly did not do it by September.
Sinn Fein welcomed the move, with party leader Mary Lou McDonald saying it had broken the “logjam of DUP obstructionism.” The party said it would nominate O’Neill as deputy first minister.
DUP leader Edwin Poots accused Sinn Fein of creating instability, but confirmed that “Paul Givan will be nominated for the position of first minister at the earliest opportunity.”
However, the move was opposed by many DUP lawmakers in the assembly and in the British Parliament — a sign of deep tensions within the party.
The new government was formed following the resignation of Arlene Foster as first minister and DUP leader. She quit in April, under pressure from her party over her handling of Brexit and her perceived softening on social issues such as abortion and LGBT rights.
The party elected Poots, a social and religious conservative, to replace Foster as leader. He broke with tradition by deciding not to serve as first minister.
The DUP, which is rooted in the fundamentalist Free Presbyterian Church, opposed Northern Ireland’s 1998 peace accord. It later became reconciled to it and has shared power with the Irish Republican Army-linked Sinn Fein.
The British government retains an array of powers affecting Northern Ireland, but the Belfast assembly can make laws in areas including agriculture, education and health. It is due to meet later Thursday to discuss easing coronavirus restrictions in Northern Ireland.
The power-sharing relationship has often been strained, and Britain’s economic split from the European Union at the end of 2020 has further shaken the political balance in Northern Ireland.
Post-Brexit trade rules have imposed customs and border checks on some goods moving between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K., angering Northern Ireland’s British unionists who say the new checks amount to a border in the Irish Sea and weaken ties with the rest of the U.K.
Tensions over the new rules contributed to a week of street violence in Northern Irish cities in April that saw youths pelt police with bricks, fireworks and gasoline bombs.