THE leader of Sinn Fein has said the return of Stormont will be a moment of “very great significance” with Irish unity now “within touching distance”.

The powersharing deal in Northern Ireland could be back up and running within days after the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) endorsed a deal for it to be restored after a 23-month absence.

Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill will become first minister when it is restored in a first for the party after it became the largest party in the Northern Ireland Assembly in the elections in 2022.

Speaking to the media, Sinn Fein party leader Mary Lou McDonald said the return of a functioning assembly had been a long time coming.

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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.

The National:

“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.”

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.

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“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 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.

He 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.

The parties eligible to participate in a revived ministerial executive are meeting to discuss the next steps.