The return of Stormont’s powersharing institutions with Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill as first minister will be a moment of “very great significance”, party leader Mary Lou McDonald has said.
The Sinn Fein president also said she believed that Irish unity was now within “touching distance” as she said change was happening across the island of Ireland.
The end of the two-year Stormont blockage was signalled when DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson secured the backing of his party executive for Government proposals aimed at addressing his party’s concerns over Brexit’s so-called Irish Sea border.
Sir Jeffrey has expressed hope that the executive could be back in place within days.
Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris has said he now believes that “all the conditions are now in place” for Stormont to return.
The parties eligible to participate in a revived ministerial executive are meeting to discuss the next steps.
Speaking to the media, Mrs McDonald said the return of a functioning Assembly had been a long time coming.
She said: “We are almost two years away from the last assembly election.
“I very much welcome the fact that the DUP have now moved to explicitly recognise and respect the outcome of that assembly election.
“We look forward now to getting the job done, getting ministers in place, having MLAs return to the chamber and Michelle O’Neill taking up position as first minister.
“That will be a moment of very great significance; not simply because we haven’t had government for so long but because it will be the first time that we will have a Sinn Fein first minister, a nationalist first minister.
“So, a mark of the extent of change that has occurred in the north and indeed right across Ireland.”
Ms O’Neill said it was a “day of optimism”.
She said: “I think the next number of days are going to be crucial to get us to the actual, real, live point where we actually go into that chamber and nominate first and deputy first ministers, put ministers into positions and let’s get down to business.”
Mrs McDonald also spoke about the potential for Irish unity.
She said: “The historical turning of the wheel and the electoral place we are at I think signifies that what we talk about is possible now.
“As a matter of fact, in historic terms, it is within touching distance and I think that is a very exciting thing and I hope people will find that a very welcoming conversation.”
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey has made clear his party’s return to Stormont is dependent on the UK Government implementing the various legislative assurances and other measures it has offered.
It is understood the Government will introduce two statutory instruments at Westminster to give legislative effect to the commitments it has made on trade and sovereignty.
The return of Stormont will also see the Treasury release a £3.3 billion package to support under-pressure public services in Northern Ireland.
The financial package includes money to settle the demands of striking public sector workers in the region this year.
The DUP has been using a veto power to block Stormont’s devolved institutions for two years in protest at the post-Brexit arrangements that have created trade barriers between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
Speaking at Westminster, Mr Heaton-Harris said he would publish on Wednesday proposals to secure Northern Ireland’s place in the UK internal market and to strengthen the union.
He said: “I believe that all the conditions are now in place for the assembly to return.
“I look forward very much to the restoration of the institutions as soon as possible.
“There was a financial package worth over £3 billion offered to the parties before Christmas.
“This will absolutely be available to an incoming executive.
“The parties entitled to form an executive are meeting today to discuss these matters and I hope we will be able to finalise this deal with those parties as soon as possible and move forward.”
Sir Jeffrey said the deal to restore Stormont powersharing will remove all post-Brexit checks on goods moving into Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK.
“For the movement of goods within the United Kingdom, the protocol of course imposed severe restrictions on the movement of those goods, these new arrangements remove those restrictions,” he told BBC Radio Ulster.
“Zero checks, zero customs paperwork on goods moving within the United Kingdom.
“That takes away the border within the UK between Northern Ireland and Great Britain and that is something that’s very important.
“Now, are these proposals perfect?
“Have we achieved everything that we wanted to achieve?
“No, we haven’t, I will be honest with people about what we’ve been able to deliver, the substantive change.”
Sir Jeffrey announced his conditional support for a Stormont return at post-1am press conference in Co Down on Tuesday.
That came after he had secured what he said was the “decisive” backing of the 130-strong party executive during a five-hour meeting on Monday night.
He said DUP party officers, a key 12-strong decision-making body, had also “mandated” him to move forward on the basis he was proposing.
During the powersharing impasse, the DUP has used “seven tests” to measure any proposals designed to address its concerns on the trading arrangements.
Sir Jeffrey said the package on the table represented “progress” across all seven tests.
Support for the deal is not unanimous within the DUP and several senior figures remain fiercely opposed to the proposed agreement to restore powersharing.
Asked about the potential for dissent within the party, Sir Jeffrey added: “I am confident that all members of the party will accept what was a decisive move by the party executive.”