Sunak to visit Northern Ireland after Stormont restored

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

The UK prime minister is hoping to highlight London’s role in the return of the Stormont assembly after prolonged negotiations between the British government and parties in Northern Ireland. 

Under the new agreement, Michelle O’Neill of Sinn Féin on Saturday became the first nationalist to hold the role of first minister in a region created by partition in 1921 as a bastion of pro-UK unionism. 

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

But it was unable to form an administration because of a boycott by the Democratic Unionist Party, the largest pro-UK grouping, in protest against post-Brexit trading arrangements for Northern Ireland.

Downing Street said Sunak — whose government has pledged £3.3bn in funding for the region — would on Sunday meet emergency responders and “community heroes”.

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

Ireland’s Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is also due in Belfast on Monday and is expected to hold bilateral talks with Sunak.

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

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

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

In her first speech to the Stormont Assembly after being sworn in, O’Neill offered “co-operation and genuine, honest effort with those . . . who cherish the Union” and all others in Northern Ireland’s still deeply divided society.

But she slammed Sunak’s Conservative party for squeezing the region financially to the detriment of public services, vowing to fight for “proper” funding.

Stormont was restored after the DUP struck a deal with the government and MPs at Westminster enacted legislation to buttress Northern Ireland’s place in the UK.

The laws will lift border checks on goods entering from Britain and staying in the region — key demands that prompted the party’s boycott of Stormont.

The DUP held out even after Sunak’s Windsor framework deal with the EU a year ago to ease post-Brexit trade rules, saying Northern Ireland’s place within the UK and ability to trade with Great Britain were still being undermined.

While Stormont was on ice, Northern Ireland’s finances were run by Belfast civil servants, who implemented tight budgets imposed by Westminster. 

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

Some of the cash is conditional on fiscal planning and new revenue raising by Stormont, potentially including highly unpopular water rates.

That deal conceded that the funding formula for Northern Ireland needed to be changed but the government is unlikely to want to put more cash on the table beyond what it has called its “extremely generous” package.

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

The Act will halt inquests into atrocities during the region’s three decades of conflict known as the Troubles that ended in 1998. 

Video: Northern Ireland tries to heal a legacy of separation | FT Film

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