David Lammy 10am - 1pm
Irish unification 'within touching distance' claims Sinn Fein leader after DUP agrees return to Stormont
30 January 2024, 22:34
Irish unification is within 'touching distance', Sinn Fein has claimed after the DUP agreed to return to Stormont after two years.
Listen to this article
Mary Lou McDonald, the party's leader in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, said she believed "the days of partition are numbered" as she hailed the significance of her party assuming the role of Stormont first minister for the first time.
The Sinn Fein leader said she expected the appointment of her party colleague Michelle O'Neill into the job of first minister in the coming days - calling it as a moment of "very great significance".
It comes after Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, the DUP leader, announced the party executive had accepted Sunak’s Irish Sea border offer following an extensive five-hour long meeting.
The Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont will be restored after the DUP walked out of the power-sharing agreement in February 2022.
Ms McDonald could herself become taoiseach in the Republic of Ireland later this year, with the party currently ahead in the polls. This would mean a Sinn Fein leader could soon be heading up the governments on either side of the border.
Ms McDonald has previously predicted a referendum on Irish unity by 2023. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is required to call a border poll if it "appears likely" a majority on either side would back unification. This is yet to be reflected substantially in opinion polls.
Continuing to reflect on the day, the Sinn Fein leader told Sky News it would be a moment of “very great significance” and unification was “in historic terms” within “touching distance”,
She said Ms O'Neill's elevation would be "a mark of the extent of change that has occurred in the north and indeed right across Ireland".
"Striving for the new Ireland isn't some kind of dusty legal, constitutional matter, although it is that, it really is about us collectively having a conversation about what Ireland can look like and will look like in the next five years, 10 years, 20 years, for the next generations.
"And, for us, one of the challenges is to bring as many people as we possibly can into that conversation.
She continued: "I'm not naive, we are not naive. We know that there will be challenges and there will be forces that will push back against change.
"But we are all about a changed Ireland and new Ireland for everybody."
The end of the two-year Stormont impasse was signalled in the early hours of Tuesday morning when Sir Jeffrey secured the backing of his party executive for Government proposals aimed at addressing his party's concerns over Brexit's so-called Irish Sea border.
Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris said he now believes that "all the conditions are now in place" for Stormont to return.
The Government has said it will publish on Wednesday proposals to "secure Northern Ireland's place in the UK internal market and to strengthen the union".
The parties eligible to participate in a revived ministerial executive met at Stormont Castle on Tuesday afternoon to discuss the next steps.
As the parties were meeting, the UK Government and EU announced an update to the Windsor Framework - which governs Irish Sea trade.
The new decision allows Northern Ireland to better benefit from a free trade agreement secured by the UK Government covering agri-food foods.
However, a spokeswoman for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said this was not part of the agreement struck with the DUP.
She added: "This is separate - this is an update on some separate work we have been working on with the European Commission."
However, Sir Jeffrey said the change was one of the key elements in his negotiations with the Government.
He said: "I welcome the fact that we are now beginning to see the delivery of what was promised with the announcement today between the UK Government and the EU that there is further legal change that will be of real benefit to businesses in Northern Ireland, that ensures that Northern Ireland benefits fully from UK free trade deals.
"These were key elements in our requirements, in our negotiations with the Government.
"Those who said there will be no legal change, who were predicting things would fall short; I simply asked people to wait and see the outcome.
"Wait and see the evidence and judge for yourself what this deal does, what it delivers, the change that it secures. I believe we are now beginning to see on day one, that delivery coming through."
The DUP leader also predicted that the agreement he had secured with the Government would lead to goods which are destined for Northern Ireland through the green lane element of the Windsor Framework, flowing freely from the rest of the UK.