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Northern Ireland's politicians return to work after three-year standoff

BELFAST (Reuters) - Northern Ireland’s main political parties sat down together in Belfast on Saturday to form a power-sharing government and end a three-year standoff that threatened a key part of the province’s 1998 peace settlement.

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Arlene Foster, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, the largest group in the reformed Assembly, was sworn in as First Minister at a special sitting of the 90-member body at Parliament Buildings in Stormont.

Michelle O’Neill, Sinn Fein Vice President and leader of the second largest party in the Assembly, was sworn in as Deputy First Minister.

Naomi Long, leader of the centrist non sectarian Alliance Party will be Justice Minister, and in a show of cross party support, Sinn Fein’s Alex Maskey was elected as Speaker with DUP backing.

British prime minister Boris Johnson welcomed the formation of the governing executive and said in a statement that it “can now get on with the job of delivering much needed reforms to the health service, education and justice”.

Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar said the parties and politicians “are to be commended for their decision to put the people they represent first and make measured compromises to reach a deal.”

Sinn Fein, the largest nationalist party, withdrew from the power-sharing government three years ago, saying it was not being treated equally by the pro-British DUP. Since then both parties have blamed each other for a number of failed attempts to break the deadlock.

The restoration of the devolved administration came after the British and Irish governments on Thursday brokered a deal to end the suspension of the Assembly.

The deal offers a new cultural framework to “protect and enhance” the Irish language as well as the Ulster Scots language. It also offers reform of a clause from the 1998 peace deal that was meant to ensure cross-community support on controversial issues but was frequently used as a veto over the assembly’s decisions.

The importance of the devolved administration has increased because a provision in Britain’s Brexit withdrawal deal will give the Assembly the right every four years to consider whether to maintain alignment with EU market rules.

The Assembly now recovers administrative responsibility for Northern Ireland, which suffered through three decades ofsectarian violence before the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

The two big Northern Irish parties were under pressure to reach a deal after their share of the vote fell in December’s UK general election, and budget issues in the health serviceculminated in a strike by local nurses this week.

Had the parties not reached a deal by next Monday, the British Government insisted there would have to be fresh elections.

Reporting Ian Graham; Editing by Graham Fahy, Giles Elgood, Kirsten Donovan