Rishi Sunak urges Northern Ireland to 'focus on things that matter', not vote on united Ireland

5 February 2024, 16:14

Rishi Sunak has visited Northern Ireland
Rishi Sunak has visited Northern Ireland. Picture: Alamy

By Kit Heren

Rishi Sunak has urged Northern Ireland politicians to "focus on day-to-day things that matter to people" rather than constitutional change" amid calls for Irish reunification.

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The prime minister was speaking after new Northern Ireland first minister, Sinn Fein's Michelle O'Neill, said that a referendum on bringing Ireland into a united Ireland could take place within a decade.

Mr Sunak met Stormont party leaders and Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar on Monday, after the Northern Ireland executive reformed on Saturday following a two-year hiatus.

He told broadcasters: "I had very constructive meetings this morning with the executive, with political leaders across Stormont, and it is a historic and important day for the country, because Northern Ireland’s politicians are back in charge, making decisions on behalf of their people, which is exactly how it should be.

"Now, our new deal gives them more funding and more powers than they have ever had, so they can deliver for families and businesses across Northern Ireland. And that’s what everyone’s priority is now.

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"It is not constitutional change, it is delivering on the day-to-day things that matter to people.

Mr Sunak said that the post-Brexit Windsor Framework deal he struck had succeeded in protecting Northern Ireland's place in the union.

He said: "We have worked very hard, and I believe, succeeded in protecting Northern Ireland's place in our union and building on what we achieved with the Windsor Framework to ensure the smooth flow of trade within the United Kingdom.

"And to ensure all the benefits that are there as a result of Brexit can be seized.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak speaking to media as he visits Glencraig Integrated Primary School in Holywood, Co Down, during his trip to Northern Ireland following the restoration of the powersharing executive. Picture date: Monday February 5, 2024.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak speaking to media as he visits Glencraig Integrated Primary School in Holywood, Co Down, during his trip to Northern Ireland following the restoration of the powersharing executive. Picture date: Monday February 5, 2024. Picture: Alamy

"That's the deal that we struck, that's what the Windsor Framework delivers, that's what all our conversations have been and I am confident that not only will people start to see the benefits of that very quickly, but crucially now with the executive up and running, the democratic safeguards that we negotiated as part of the Windsor Framework can now actually be used.

"The most important thing is that the people of Northern Ireland are in charge of their own destiny, because of the Stormont brake in particular, an executive up and running can use those powers."

Belfast, United Kingdom, 05 02 2024, Rishi Sunak and Leo Varadkar visit Stormont and hold talks with local politicians Credit: HeadlineX/Alamy
Belfast, United Kingdom, 05 02 2024, Rishi Sunak and Leo Varadkar visit Stormont and hold talks with local politicians Credit: HeadlineX/Alamy. Picture: Alamy

The executive, which is led by Sinn Fein's Michelle O'Neill as leader and the DUP's Emma Little-Pengelly as deputy, held its first meeting on Monday to begin the task of trying to deal with Northern Ireland's strained finances.

Leaders have already written to the Prime Minister calling for urgent discussions on long-term funding stability to deliver public services.

Ms O'Neill made history when she was appointed the region's first nationalist first minister.

The institutions were restored after a deal between Mr Sunak's government and the DUP to address unionist concerns over post-Brexit trading arrangements, which included passing new legislation at Westminster.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak speaking with students
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak speaking with students. Picture: Alamy

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On Sunday, the British prime minister was at the headquarters of Air Ambulance Northern Ireland in Co Antrim, where he said the return of Stormont represented a "brighter future for people".

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak (left) during a visit to Air Ambulance Northern Ireland at their headquarters in Lisburn.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak (left) during a visit to Air Ambulance Northern Ireland at their headquarters in Lisburn. Picture: Alamy

The UK Government has offered a £3.3 billion package to stabilise finances in the region, and settle public sector pay claims - but the executive will press Mr Sunak for more funding.

Mr Sunak said the offer represents "a generous and fair settlement", adding that "crucially, it is sustainable.

"It is about ensuring public finances in Northern Ireland are sustainable for the long term. That approach we have taken, I think, will really benefit everyone here.

The newly-formed Executive has already written to the Prime Minister calling for urgent discussions on long-term funding stability to deliver public services.
The newly-formed Executive has already written to the Prime Minister calling for urgent discussions on long-term funding stability to deliver public services. Picture: Alamy

"And now that we have got the executive back up and running, it is right that people have their local politicians focusing on their priorities, starting with public services.

"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”, he added.

However, the letter from all Stormont ministers to the Prime Minister states that the current financial package on offer "does not provide the basis for the executive to deliver sustainable public services and public finances".

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