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Northern Ireland leaders' split on COVID-19 curbs frustrates business

FILE PHOTO: A closed pub is seen in Belfast following the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), Belfast, Northern Ireland, May 7, 2020. REUTERS/Jason Cairnduff/File Photo

DUBLIN (Reuters) - Disagreements over whether to ease COVID-19 curbs this week among the rival Sinn Fein and Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) that lead Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government drew criticism on Wednesday from frustrated businesses.

Northern Ireland became the first part of the United Kingdom to reimpose strict COVID-19 constraints in mid-October, closing schools for two weeks and restaurants for four but only after disagreements between the two parties were settled.

The mandatory power-sharing executive was a key part of a 1998 peace deal that largely ended three decades of violence between Catholic Irish nationalists, whom Sinn Fein traditionally draw support from, and DUP-backing Protestant unionists.

The British-run region was one of Europe’s biggest coronavirus hotbeds when it brought in the curbs and while cases have fallen, they are still higher than across the open border in Ireland, where stricter measures are in place until Dec. 1.

Northern Ireland’s health minister, Robin Swann, a member of the Ulster Unionist Party, one of the three smaller parties in the devolved government, has called for the measures to be extended for two weeks, a position backed by Sinn Fein.

The DUP want hair dressers, beauticians and coffee shops to reopen, first minister and party leader Arlene Foster said. She also criticised Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill of Sinn Fein for advocating a relaxation of the rules in an interview on Sunday before backing the two-week extension.

“We told people that this would last four weeks ... In another two weeks we might be asking for a further two weeks ... That’s simply not good enough,” Foster told BBC Radio Ulster.

A meeting of the executive broke up after midnight without agreement and the parties will meet again at 1230 GMT, O’Neill said. The restrictions lapse on Thursday.

Hospitality Ulster, the sector’s main lobby group, said delays in making a decision meant many hotels and restaurants had decided to remain closed for another two weeks to ensure they remain eligible for emergency financial support.

Reporting by Padraic Halpin; Editing by Robert Birsel