February 24, 2024

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Rishi Sunak and Leo Varadkar make flying visits to Northern Ireland

Rishi Sunak and Leo Varadkar make flying visits to Northern Ireland

  • Written by Jane McCormack
  • BBC News NI political correspondent

Image source, Kelvin Boyes/Eye Press

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Prime Minister Rishi Sunak pictured with Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris and ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive

They met in what the Prime Minister described as a “very good meeting”.

They also met political leaders separately, including First Minister Michelle O'Neill and Deputy First Minister Emma Little Pengelly.

Sunak said the new agreement would protect Northern Ireland's place in the union.

He said that the return of the delegated government was a reason for optimism.

Varadkar did not address the issue of a united Ireland, instead saying the Assembly's return showed the Good Friday Agreement was working again.

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Taoiseach Leo Varadkar met Deputy First Minister Emma Little Pengelly and First Minister Michelle O'Neill at Stormont

He said the new ministers were “keen to see their briefs” and that the Irish government was “here to help”.

Speaking before the first meeting of Northern Ireland's executive – the ministers who guide policy and make decisions – Ms O'Neill said: “Today is a good day.”

The parties in the executive branch – its party Sinn Féin – said; Democratic Unionist Party (DUP); Ulster Unionist Party (UUP); and the Alliance – “committed to working together.”

Ms Little Pengelly echoed the First Minister's comments, saying they were “fully aware of the big issues that need to be addressed”.

What did Mr Sunak and NI ministers discuss?

One of the key issues ministers are pressing is how to fund Northern Ireland.

Executive ministers have written to Sunak calling for a new funding model that provides “long-term sustainability”, while Ms O’Neill has previously described it as a priority for the executive.

Sunak described this package as a “generous and fair settlement for Northern Ireland.”

Image source, Kelvin Boyes/Eye Press

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Prime Minister Rishi Sunak pictured with Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris and ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive

Meanwhile, Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris told Good Morning Ulster that the Finance Council report indicated Northern Ireland was properly funded and questioned the figures used by ministers to call for funding changes.

He added that civil servants “have been wrong in the past.”

However, both the First Minister and his deputy said this was an issue they had raised with Mr Sunak.

Mr O'Neill said new ministers had “trays as long as your arm” but appropriate financial arrangements needed to be put in place in order to deal with these matters.

“We want to make sure that this executive has the right tools and adequate resources to do what he needs to do,” Ms. Little Pengelly said.

He added: “We are ready to face this challenge and are prepared for very constructive working arrangements to try to address this issue together.”

In this letter, the new CEO effectively says that the financial package announced before Christmas will almost certainly lead to another budget crisis at Stormont unless it is revised.

Therefore, the ministers want to reopen negotiations on important elements, most notably the “financial floor.”

It is based on the devolved funding model in Wales, where it has been recognized that demographic differences make providing services more expensive compared to England.

The government agreed Wales should be funded at 115% of England's level. In other words, for every £100 spent on public services in England, there must be at least £115 per capita in Wales.

The government has also accepted a similar model for Northern Ireland, where individual funding will be set at 124% of the England level.

Stormont ministers say this amount is too low and has not been subject to robust independent assessment or analysis.

They believe the starting point should be 127%, with justification for it being higher.

The difference may seem small, but over time it will represent billions of pounds of additional funding.

DUP leader Sir Geoffrey Donaldson said on Monday morning that he would also speak to the Prime Minister about the issue and would not apologize in those discussions.

Sir Geoffrey, who is not a member of the Stormont Assembly because he is a Westminster MP, said: “Funding for Northern Ireland is below the level of need.”

“We need the government to go a little further so that our finances are in a healthy position.”

Image source, Oliver McPhee

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(LR) NI Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris, First Minister Michelle O'Neill, Deputy First Minister Emma Little Pingelly and UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, pictured in the Parliament Buildings in Belfast

How did we get here?

The return of power-sharing came after months of negotiations involving the government and the Democratic Unionist Party, the largest unionist party in Northern Ireland.

It withdrew from power-sharing in February 2022 in protest against the post-Brexit trade arrangements for Northern Ireland, agreed between the UK and the EU.

Last week, DUP leader Sir Geoffrey Donaldson announced that his party had reached an agreement with No 10 that would mean there would be no “routine” checks on goods crossing from Great Britain into Northern Ireland.

He said that on this basis, and with legislation passed in Westminster to implement further changes, his party would return to government.

This decision culminated in the restoration of power-sharing institutions on Saturday, two years after the Democratic Unionist Party withdrew from executive power.

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