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N. Ireland Parties Mull Deal to Restore Collapsed Government

FILE - A car passes a Brexit sign on the old Belfast to Dublin road, close to the Irish border in Newry, Northern Ireland, Oct. 16, 2019.

Northern Ireland's main political parties are meeting Friday to decide whether to accept a deal to restore the Belfast-based government that collapsed three years ago.

Northern Ireland's 1.8 million people have been without a functioning administration since the power-sharing government fell apart in January 2017 over a botched green-energy project. The rift soon widened to broader cultural and political issues separating Northern Ireland's British unionists and Irish nationalists, who shared power in the government.

After several days of intense talks, the British and Irish governments late Thursday published a draft proposal to revive the Northern Ireland Assembly and executive.

The U.K.'s Northern Ireland Secretary, Julian Smith, said the political parties had not agreed to all of it, but he was asking the assembly's speaker to reconvene the legislature Friday in hope politicians would back the deal.

“Now is decision time,” he said. "We have had three years of talks and there is finally a good deal on the table that all parties can support."

Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney also urged acceptance, saying it was time “politicians stepped up and fully represented their constituents.”

“Forget the language of win or lose. This is a deal filled with compromises,” he said.

Initial signs were encouraging. The main pro-British group, the Democratic Unionist Party, said it was ``not a perfect deal,`` but could be supported.

“On balance we believe there is a basis upon which the assembly and executive can be re-established in a fair and balanced way,” said DUP leader Arlene Foster.

Irish nationalist party Sinn Fein, the DUP's former government partner, said its ruling council would meet Friday afternoon to decide whether to support the deal.

Previous attempts to restore power-sharing between Sinn Fein and the DUP and have come to nothing. But the U.K.'s looming departure from the European Union, due on Jan. 31, has given new urgency to attempts to restore the government. Northern Ireland has the U.K.'s only border with an EU member country, and Brexit will challenge the status of the currently invisible frontier, potentially pushing Northern Ireland into a closer embrace with its southern member, the Republic of Ireland. Both of the two main parties, the DUP and Sinn Fein, want a say on what happens next.

Northern Ireland also faced a Jan. 13 deadline to restore the government or face new elections for the assembly that could see Sinn Fein and the DUP lose ground to less intransigent parties.

The deal includes promises of financial support from the U.K. for big infrastructure projects if the government is restored, as well as proposals to deal with contentious issues such as the status of the Irish language.