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Watch: Boris Johnson speaks in Northern Ireland as new assembly is opened

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Watch: Boris Johnson speaks in Northern Ireland as new assembly is opened
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British Prime Minister Boris Johnson spoke at the Northern Ireland assembly on January 13 a few days after politicians sat after agreeing to a power-sharing deal.

Speaking to reporters outside the parliament building, he said: "It is not just about money, it’s about leadership," and said Northern Irish politicians had put aside their differences.

What is going on in Northern Ireland?

Northern Ireland's assembly sat for the first time in three years on Saturday amidst mounting public pressure and fears over a possible election.

The province's power-sharing government collapsed in January 2017 after one of the country’s co-leaders Martin McGuinness resigned, citing disagreements with the opposition unionists.

The disagreements stemmed in part from the embroilment of the joint head of the Executive, First Minister Arlene Foster, in an energy scandal involving a failed effort to encourage the use of renewable energies.

Since 2017, there have been several attempts to get the province's divided parties back to the assembly to govern, as required under the Good Friday Agreement, but deep partisan divisions have prevented compromise.

Euronews takes a look at how the parties finally agreed to bring Stormont back in session.

How did the gridlock end?

The UK and Irish governments brokered a draft deal released on Thursday to which both the unionist and nationalist parties, the DUP and Sinn Fein, agreed with some compromises.

One area of contention had been nationalist party Sinn Fein's demand for an Irish Language Act, which the DUP were opposed to as they saw it as "too much of a concession" that could "erode British identity", explains Queen's University Belfast professor James Pow.

The draft legislation for a deal includes a watered-down version of that act, which recognises the status of the Irish language and appoints a commissioner.

In the past, Sinn Fein had also said that they would not support Arlene Foster as first minister but on Saturday, the DUP's Foster and Sinn Fein's Michelle O'Neill became co-equal heads of government.

The new deal also includes provisions aimed at preventing another collapse, including the addition of more time to appoint a new minister before an election in the event that one of the government's leaders resigns.

Read more: Northern Ireland parliament sits at Stormont after three years of deadlock

Why now?

The timing is in part due to a Westminster-imposed deadline of Monday, January 13 to bring back the assembly before calling a regional election.

Neither of the two main parties was willing to risk losing seats in a new election, experts say.

Both the DUP and Sinn Fein suffered losses in the UK's December general election as smaller - and more moderate - parties gained votes.

The DUP also lost their influence in Westminster after Boris Johnson's Conservatives won an outright majority. Former Prime Minister Theresa May had previously struck a deal with the unionist party in order to secure a majority in the House of Commons.

"They had more of an incentive this time to get back into government...which was an incentive that wasn’t really there over the last three years," Pow said.

But public pressure was also mounting on the assembly members.

Although the government in Westminster passed a budget for the province instead of the National Assembly, the province faced serious health service and infrastructure legislation delays.

In the past few months, nurses in the province have been striking over low pay compared to their counterparts in the rest of the United Kingdom.

"For most of the period people didn't feel any tangible effects of there being devolved government, but over last through months, in particular, the health service feeling more constraints, people feel more the front line effects," said Pow.

That includes longer waiting times for patients, lack of staff and pay raises, and delayed infrastructure projects.

What does the future hold for Northern Ireland?

According to the draft deal, the assembly's agenda is stocked with issues from reforming the health service and resourcing schools to investing in wastewater infrastructure.

These are the "bread and butter issues that have been ignored for the last three years," Pow said. They are also the issues that the public will be hoping the government can solve quickly.

But it won't be easy: "it’s still a place with deep political divisions that don't just disappear and political parties do reflect some of those divisions," Pow explained.

But for the moment, the mood is cautiously optimistic.

In a symbolic move, the assembly held a sitting on Saturday to appoint government ministers after agreeing on the draft deal Friday night.

But looming over their heads will also be Brexit, which will have a big impact on Northern Ireland.

As part of the deal negotiated between the European Union and the UK government, Northern Ireland will follow EU customs rules to avoid a hard border with the Republic of Ireland.

In the new deal, the Northern Irish assembly will decide four years after a transition period whether or not to keep the new customs arrangements.

Read more: Brexit Guide: Where are we now – and how did we get here?