Picture by Simon Walker / No 10 Downing Street

NI leaders must ‘deliver for families and businesses’ after Stormont return, says Sunak

Rishi Sunak has travelled to Northern Ireland to mark the restoration of power-sharing at Stormont.

The prime minister hailed a “special opportunity” at the beginning of his visit after Stormont returned on Saturday to establish a new power-sharing executive.

Having arrived in Belfast on Sunday, the prime minister is scheduled to meet new first minister Michelle O’Neill of Sinn Féin as well as Emma Little-Pengelly of the DUP, the deputy first minister.

The prime minister is also expected to meet the taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, amid tension with the Irish government over its legal challenge to the UK’s policy on Troubles-related offences.

During a visit to the headquarters of Air Ambulance Northern Ireland in Lisburn last night, Sunak said political leaders should now be focussed on “delivering for families and businesses”.

Week-in-Review: Stormont is back, but the DUP’s Brexit strains remain

He said: “It is great to be back in Northern Ireland this evening, a special part of our United Kingdom”.

“In the last few days, we have made significant progress towards a brighter future for people here. Yesterday, the assembly sat for the first time in two years. Tomorrow, the executive will meet.

“Tonight, I have been meeting with volunteers and the crew at the air ambulance. It is people and services like this, and many more, that the executive can now focus on, delivering for families and businesses across Northern Ireland. And with the new deal that we have agreed, they will have both the funding and the powers to do exactly that.”

Stormont’s assembly reconvened on Saturday after a crunch period last week which ended with the DUP announcing that it would cease its boycott of the assembly.

A deal between the UK government and the DUP, which included £3.3 billion to stabilise finances, met the party’s concerns over post-Brexit trading arrangements. 

Speaking this morning on Sky News, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, leader of the DUP, has reiterated that Northern Ireland is “firmly part of the United Kingdom” despite the appointment of a nationalist first minister.

He said: “I’m a democrat and when you fight an election sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. But let’s not forget that the office of first minister, it’s a joint office.”

He added: “We will work with other ministers in the executive to deliver for the people of Northern Ireland.”

Asked about Michelle O’Neill’s claim that a vote on Irish reunification could happen in the next 10 years, he said: “I don’t agree with that at all”.

“Michelle O’Neill instead of focusing on a divisive border poll, she says she wants to be a first minister for all – well, that means the unionist community.”

The DUP leader said that polls show at least 60 per cent of people support the union, adding that there is “no evidence whatsoever” that there is a shift away from Northern Ireland wanting to be part of the UK.

“Let’s move forward together, let’s focus on the issues that really matter to people.”

It came after Sinn Féin first minister Michelle O’Neill told Sky News yesterday: “I believe … that we can do two things at once; we can have power-sharing, we can make it stable, we can work together every day in terms of public services while we also pursue our equally legitimate aspirations.”

Asked if this meant there would be a unity referendum in the next decade, O’Neill said: “Yes. 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.”

Politics.co.uk is the UK’s leading digital-only political website, providing comprehensive coverage of UK politics. Subscribe to our daily newsletter here.