Real work starts now, Rishi Sunak tells Stormont leaders

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, also at Stormont, said it was a ‘very positive day’

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar insisted that the question of Irish unity was “not for today” during his first visit to the newly restored powersharing government in Northern Ireland.

Mr Varadkar travelled to Stormont Castle on Monday to meet British prime minister Rishi Sunak before separate talks with First Minister Michelle O’Neill, Deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly, the Executive and the Opposition.

Addressing media in the Great Hall at Parliament buildings, the Taoiseach said he felt privileged to be at Stormont on a “historic day” following two years of political deadlock.

“When the Assembly falls, it tends not to be re-established for years and I think we always need to bear that in mind,” he said.


“But I do feel a sense of confidence from the new Executive that this is here to last. We will work and help in any way we can, particularly around North-South issues and East-West issues.”

Stormont’s devolved institutions returned for the first time in two years on Saturday, after the DUP made a deal with the UK government to end its boycott over post-Brexit trading arrangements.

Sinn Féin vice-president Michelle O’Neill, who was elected First Minister, became the first nationalist to hold the post in Northern Ireland’s history, while the DUP’s Emma Little-Pengelly took the role of Deputy First Minister.

In the wake of the appointment, Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald said she expected a referendum on Irish unity “in this decade”, echoing similar remarks made by Ms O’Neill.

Asked on Monday if he expected to see a united Ireland in the next 10 years, Mr Varadkar refused to be drawn.

“I think that’s not for today” he said. “Today really is about marking the fact that the Good Friday Agreement, which we voted for in big numbers North and South, is now functioning again, the Assembly is operating, the Executive and hopefully the North-South bodies and ministerial councils soon.

“I think that today should really be about that rather than constitutional questions”.

The Taoiseach’s meeting with Mr Sunak came a week after they reportedly clashed during a telephone call in which they discussed Dublin’s legal challenge to the UK government’s Legacy Act.

Mr Varadkar announced before Christmas that the Irish Government would take legal action in the European Court of Human Rights against the UK – in the form of an interstate case – over the UK legislation, which allows immunity to be offered to perpetrators of Troubles-era crimes

Asked why, as co-guarantors of the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement, the Irish and UK heads of government were not holding a joint press conference at Stormont given the significance of the day, Mr Varadkar responded by saying that they had a “very good meeting” on Monday morning.

“We’re keen to think about the future and work on North-South co-operation, but also East-West co-operation, which is very important,” he told reporters.

However, Mr Varadkar said, there was “no denying” there were “issues of difference” between the two governments in relation to legacy.

Asked about last week’s telephone call with Mr Sunak, he said it was a 20-minute conversation which focused on the political breakthrough in Northern Ireland while touching on other issues, including Ukraine.

“The only issue on which there was disagreement or any difficulties was on the issue of legacy. It probably took up less than a quarter of that phone call,” he said.

“It was an issue that I raised and I thought it was important we should discuss it. It is very clearly a point of difference between the two governments but that doesn’t mean we can’t work together on some of the other things that are very important too.”

On Monday, Mr Sunak said he “deeply regretted” the Government’s decision to take the interstate case but added that “Ireland is always going to be a close and valued partner and friend”.

“I met the Taoiseach today, I spoke to him last week. I also was the first prime minister to attend the British-Irish Council in over a decade. I regularly speak to him and I also have an enormous amount of respect for all strands of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement,” he said.

The newly formed Executive met for the first time on Monday afternoon and, in advance of the talks, Ms O’Neill insisted that she and Ms Little-Pengelly were committed to working together. Asked if she can be a “First Minister for all” while trying to secure a united Ireland, Ms O’Neill said the new executive was presenting a “united front” in terms of lobbying the UK government for more money to deliver the North’s public services.

In what was their first joint press conference together as First and Deputy First Minister, they warned of challenges ahead. But Ms O’Neill said it was a “good day” and that they were trying their best to “get to grips” with the most pressing issues ahead of them.

A pre-Christmas £3.3 billion (€3.85 billion) offer by London to Stormont “sounds good on the face of it”, she said but stressed that there’s more to be done.

“We’re working on the basis that we’re going to be successful. We know we’ve got a lot of work to do but we need the Treasury to engage with us,” she told media.

Ms Little-Pengelly echoed the First Minister’s comments and said they were “very conscious of the big issues to tackle”.

Earlier on Monday, Northern Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris signalled that no more funding would be released to Stormont, describing the £3.3 billion package as a “fair and generous offer”.

Speaking to the BBC, he rejected claims that a better funding model was required after the newly formed executive wrote to Mr Sunak calling for urgent discussion on long-term funding stability for public services.

Mr Heaton-Harris said London’s offer was “ample” to allow the Stormont executive to “get on with the job”.

About £580 million of the £3.3 billion package has been earmarked for a public sector pay award following a long-running dispute that sparked mass strike action last month.

Further planned strike action by bus and train drivers was suspended on Monday, with three trade unions confirming they would give incoming political leaders space to make an improved pay offer.

The next walkout by Translink workers was due to take place on February 15th but has been postponed until the end of the month.

The Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) – which represents the majority of the North’s trade unions – also confirmed that the money is available to settle pay claims across the public sector after its representatives met new Minister for Finance Caoimhe Archibald.

Meanwhile, US president Joe Biden also welcomed Stormont’s restoration on Monday and said he looked forward to seeing the “renewed stability of a powersharing government that strengthens the peace dividend, restores public services, and continues building on the immense progress of the last decades”.

Tánaiste Micheál Martin, who begins a visit to Washington DC and Chicago on Monday, said: “Following the restoration of the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive last week, I will update our friends in the United States Congress and president Biden’s administration on these developments and the challenges that remain, and discuss the role the United States can continue to play in ensuring peace and prosperity in Northern Ireland.”

– Additional reporting: PA

Seanín Graham

Seanín Graham

Seanín Graham is Northern Correspondent of The Irish Times