Sunak visits Northern Ireland after Stormont reset

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Rishi Sunak arrived in Northern Ireland on Sunday evening to meet politicians and community groups following the historic restoration of the region’s devolved government after two years of paralysis.

The British Prime Minister hopes to highlight London’s role in the return of the Stormont assembly after lengthy negotiations between the British government and Northern Ireland parties.

Under the new arrangement, Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill on Saturday became the first nationalist to serve as prime minister in a region created by partition in 1921 as a bastion of pro-British trade unionism.

His party, committed to the reunification of Ireland, won the most seats in the May 2022 elections.

But it was unable to form an administration due to a boycott by the Democratic Unionist Party, the largest pro-UK group, in protest at post-Brexit trade deals for Northern Ireland.

Downing Street said Sunak – whose government has pledged £3.3 billion in funding for the region – will meet emergency workers and “community heroes” on Sunday.

On Monday he will summon political leaders and ministers to the restored power-sharing Executive and meet O’Neill and Emma Little-Pengelly, the DUP deputy first minister, at Stormont Castle.

Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar will also be in Belfast on Monday and is expected to hold bilateral talks with Sunak.

Despite the deal to end the long standoff at Stormont, Sunak is set to face fresh calls from local leaders to make more money available for public services.

Sinn Féin is anathema to some unionists because it was seen as the mouthpiece of the Irish Republican Army paramilitaries who fought to end British rule during three decades of conflict known as the Troubles, which ended in 1998.

O’Neill said his appointment as the region’s first nationalist leader marked a “new dawn” for Northern Ireland. He told Sky News that he expects a referendum on Irish reunification within 10 years, calling it the “decade of opportunity”.

In his first speech to the Stormont Assembly after being sworn in, O’Neill offered “genuine and honest cooperation and engagement with those. . . who care about the Union” and everyone else in Northern Ireland’s still deeply divided society.

But he criticized Sunak’s Conservative Party for squeezing the region financially at the expense of public services, vowing to fight for “adequate” funding.

Stormont was reinstated after the DUP reached a deal with the government and Westminster MPs enacted legislation to strengthen Northern Ireland’s position in the United Kingdom.

The laws will remove border checks on goods entering Britain and remaining in the region – key demands which prompted the party to boycott Stormont.

The DUP has held out even after Sunak’s Windsor Framework Agreement with the EU a year ago to ease post-Brexit trade rules, saying Northern Ireland’s place in the UK and ability to trade with Great Britain Brittany were still compromised.

While Stormont was frozen, Northern Ireland’s finances were managed by civil servants in Belfast, who implemented the tight budgets imposed by Westminster.

Chris Heaton-Harris, the UK’s secretary for Northern Ireland, unveiled a £3.3 billion financial package for the region in December to help shore up its battered public services.

Some of the money is contingent on tax planning and new revenue raising by Stormont, including potentially highly unpopular water tariffs.

The deal meant that the funding formula for Northern Ireland would have to be changed, but the Government is unlikely to want to put more money on the table beyond what it called its “extremely generous” package.

Meanwhile, relations between the UK and Ireland have soured sharply in recent weeks over the Irish government’s decision to sue the UK at the European Court of Human Rights over the Legacy Act in London.

The law will halt investigations into atrocities committed during the three decades of conflict known as the Troubles, which ended in 1998.

Video: Northern Ireland seeks to heal legacy of separation | FT film

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