The power-sharing executive at Stormont could finally be restored after the Irish and UK governments published a draft deal yesterday.
Northern Ireland secretary Julian Smith said the joint declaration, which comes exactly three years after the Northern Ireland Assembly last sat, represented the efforts of “public service at its best”.
If Northern Ireland's five main political parties back the deal during talks at Stormont today, it will bring an end to a period that outgoing NI Civil Service head David Sterling has described as “a time of unprecedented challenge”, during which officials have effectively run the country in the absence of ministers.
Civil servants in the Northern Ireland Office and Downing Street are among those who have given “24/7 dedication and support” to the deal, Smith said as he thanked them for their efforts on Twitter yesterday evening.
The document, entitled New Decade, New Approach, promises extra cash for Northern Ireland and the creation of two “language commissioners” in a bid to remove barriers that have blocked previous attempts to revive the assembly.
The incoming executive would prioritise reforms to the health service, education and justice, along with improving transparency and accountability in government, the NIO said.
It would also examine behavioural standards for civil servants, ministers and special advisers conduct themselves. The NICS Code of ethical standards has been under review since late 2018, following revelations that officials had not kept records of high-level meetings during the so-called Cash for Ash scandal, which led to the collapse of power sharing in 2017.
Smith and Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney urged parties in the province to sign up to the deal and reconvene Stormont today.
Speaking outside Stormont last night, Smith said: "Now is decision time. We have had three years of talks, finally there is a good deal on the table that all parties can support and on that basis I have tonight written to the speaker of this Assembly and asked him to recall it tomorrow to enable the restoration of the executive before the weekend.
"I urge all parties to come here tomorrow and serve the people of Northern Ireland."
In a tweet, he added: "A huge thanks tonight to UK Civil Service, NIO and No.10 Downing Street for 24/7 dedication and support. Public service at its best."
A huge thanks tonight to @UKCivilService @NIOgov @10DowningStreet for 24/7 dedication and support. Public service at its best.
— Julian Smith MP (@JulianSmithUK) January 9, 2020
Coveney said: “It's now time their politicians stepped up and fully represented their constituents. It's time to show leadership and get back to power-sharing in Stormont.”
He added: “I want to urge all political leaders and their teams to grab this opportunity and get back to work in a multi-party executive.
"Forget the language of win or lose – this is a deal filed with compromises. They are fair compromises but, most importantly, they are compromises in the interests of all of the people in Northern Ireland."
The last coalition government between the DUP and Sinn Fein collapsed in January 2017 amid a row over the botched Renewable Heat Incentive green energy scheme.
Repeated attempts to get the executive back up and running have stalled over Sinn Fein demands over the Irish language and the legacy of the Troubles.
Sterling – who last month announced his plans to retire this summer – has repeatedly called for power sharing to be restored, and has said it is “unacceptable” that officials have been left responsible for making decisions that would otherwise be left up to ministers.
Writing for CSW’s annual perm secs’ roundup at the end of last year, Sterling said that “perhaps the most significant achievement [of NICS in 2019] has been managing public services without ministers for well in excess of 1,000 days – something I wouldn’t have thought possible when the institutions collapsed in 2017.”
Responding to the draft deal, DUP leader Arlene Foster said: "On balance we believe there is a basis upon which the assembly and executive can [be] re-established in a fair and balanced way."
She added: "This is not a perfect deal and there are elements within it which we recognise are the product of long negotiations and represent compromise outcomes. There will always need to be give and take.”
Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald said: "We are studying the text and will give it careful consideration."