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Sunak tells Sinn Fein to focus on ‘day to day’ rather than united Ireland

PM has message for nationalist first minister Michelle O’Neill – as his NI secretary admits Brexit-related problems ‘will never be solved’

Adam Forrest
Political Correspondent
Monday 05 February 2024 20:12 GMT
Rishi Sunak visits Parliament Buildings during Northern Ireland trip

Rishi Sunak has told Sinn Fein to focus on the “day to day” concerns of people in Northern Ireland rather than a referendum on Irish reunification.

The PM said “constitutional change” should not be a priority for the Irish nationalist party, after newly appointed first minister Michelle O’Neill claimed a border poll could be held in the next 10 years.

Mr Sunak met Stormont’s party leaders and the Republic of Ireland’s premier Leo Varadkar on Monday after the Northern Ireland Executive reformed on Saturday to end a two-year stalemate.

Mr Sunak said the £3bn funding boost would deliver for Northern Ireland’s families and businesses. “That’s what everyone’s priority is now – it is not constitutional change, it is delivering on the day-to-day things that matter to people.”

The devolved government – headed by Sinn Fein’s Ms O’Neill and the DUP’s Emma Little-Pengelly as deputy first minister – held its first meeting on Monday to start dealing with the province’s strained finances.

The meetings came as Mr Sunak’s Northern Ireland secretary Chris Heaton-Harris told Ms O’Neill that she should focus on improving public services rather than the issue of Irish reunification.

The Tory cabinet minister dismissed the prospect of a border poll after Ms O’Neill claimed one could be held in the next decade. Mr Heaton-Harris said the conditions for a referendum were “definitely not met at this time”.

NI secretary Chris Heaton-Harris, first minister Michelle O’Neill, deputy first minister Emma Little-Pengelly and Rishi Sunak at Stormont Castle (PA)

He told LBC that he would have to be “confident” that there was a potential majority of people in Northern Ireland “who would like to depart from their current constitutional status”.

Mr Heaton-Harris added: “I would suggest that actually, top of the in-tray for an incoming executive has to be things like public sector pay, the health service … funding on education and a whole host of other things that actually all people in Northern Ireland from both communities truly care about.”

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson criticised the new Sinn Fein first minister for focusing on the “divisive” issue of reunification.

“She says she wants to be a first minister for all, well that means the unionist community,” he told Sky News. “Let’s focus on the issues that really matter to people. They’re not interested in a divisive border poll.”

On Sunday, Ms O’Neill, the very first nationalist to assume the post of first minister at Stormont, said: “I believe we are in a decade of opportunity and there are so many things that are changing.

“All the old norms, the nature of this estate, the fact that a nationalist/Republican was never supposed to be first minister. This all speaks to that change,” she said.

Mr Sunak and Mr Heaton-Harris met leaders Ms O’Neill and Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald at Stormont on Monday.

It is understood the Sinn Fein leaders objected to elements of the recent UK deal with the DUP and expressed concerns it adopted a pro-union approach to issues such as a border poll.

They also are believed to have stressed the requirement for the UK government to remain impartial over the calling of any future referendum on Northern Ireland’s constitutional future.

The institutions were restored following a deal between Mr Sunak’s government and the DUP to allay unionist concerns over post-Brexit trading arrangements.

Mr Heaton-Harris suggested post-Brexit problems related to Northern Ireland were not over when he was grilled on BBC’s Breakfast as to whether Brexit was “actually done” after “eight years of uncertainty”.

The cabinet minister said: “This is a problem that will never be solved … This is a land border with the European single market that we have here in Northern Ireland.”

Rishi Sunak, assembly speaker Edwin Poots and NI secretary Chris Heaton-Harris at Stormont (PA)

But Mr Heaton-Harris insisted the updated deal with the DUP to ease checks was an “opportunity” that gives the province smooth access to both the UK and EU’s single market.

The PM also met with Ms O’Neill and deputy Ms Little-Pengelly at Stormont Castle, telling the executive’s Sinn Fein and DUP leaders: “Today isn’t the end, it’s the beginning and the real work starts now.”

Ms O’Neill said the meeting with Mr Sunak focused on Stormont’s finances. “We very much majored today on the issue of the finances, public services needing to be properly resourced,” she told reporters during a joint press appearance with Ms Pengelly.

Mr Sunak’s government has offered a £3.3bn package to stabilise finances in the region. However, the executive has pressed Mr Sunak for more funding.

A letter from all Stormont ministers to No 10 states that the current financial package on offer “does not provide the basis for the executive to deliver sustainable public services and public finances”.

The PM said the offer represents “a generous and fair settlement”. He added: “There has not been devolved government up and running here for far too long. But now we do have it and they can start focusing on delivering for everyone.”

Mr Sunak also met Irish premier Leo Varadkar at Stormont, as both leaders visited Belfast to mark the restoration of devolved government.

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