Thursday, December 15, 2022

Jonathan McCambridge and David Young, PA

British prime minister Rishi Sunak is to visit Northern Ireland on Thursday to meet with politicians, Stormont leaders have said.

The development came after the parties met with Britain’s Northern Ireland secretary Chris Heaton-Harris as the British government continues to press for a return to powersharing.

However, Sinn Féin vice president Michelle O’Neill said any meeting with Mr Sunak had to have a political outcome, and that she did not want “tea and sympathy”.

Devolution has been in flux since February when the DUP withdrew its first minister from the ministerial executive in protest over the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Another issue that featured in the cross-party discussions in Belfast on Thursday was the continued uncertainty over when £600 UK treasury-funded energy support payments will be rolled out to householders in Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland Assembly election
Leader of the DUP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson MP, with Phillip Brett, speaking following a meeting with Mr Heaton-Harris (Liam McBurney/PA)

Speaking after the meeting, DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said: “We covered a wide range of issues, including the ongoing negotiations between the UK Government and the European Union.

“There’s very little to report on that.

“We want to see progress made we want to see a ramping up of these talks, to try and get to a solution.”

Mr Donaldson added: “I hope we will hear from the prime minister a renewal of his commitment to resolving the issues around the protocol, taking the decisive action that is needed to restore and all those places in the UK internal market.”

Northern Ireland Assembly election
Sinn Féin vice president Michelle O’Neill (Liam McBurney/PA)

Ms O’Neill said the British government had no plan on how to restore Stormont.

She said: “I think he (Heaton-Harris) is bereft of a plan.

“Even at this stage, we’re still left in political limbo.

“There was no concrete proposals as to how they’re going to reach an agreed way forward on the protocol.”

Speaking about Mr Sunak’s visit, Ms O’Neill said: “I want a political meeting with the British Prime Minister.

“I want to know what he’s doing to get the £600 into people’s pockets. I want to know what he’s doing to secure a deal on the protocol and negotiate a way forward.

“So I have no desire to have tea and sympathy with the Prime Minister, what I want to see is a political outcome to such an engagement.”

Alliance Party deputy leader Stephen Farry said progress on talks about the protocol between the UK government and the EU had been “painfully slow”.

He said: “Much to our frustration the protocol has become the main obstacle to the restoration of an executive.

“The government needs to get its ducks in a row in that respect.”

SDLP Stormont leader Matthew O’Toole said: “Unfortunately, today’s meeting did not have any concrete actions or proposals around getting an executive formed.”

Northern Ireland Assembly election
Leader of the Ulster Unionist Party Doug Beattie (Liam McBurney/PA)

Ulster Unionist leader Doug Beattie said: “Nothing has changed, nothing has gone any further forward.

“We asked for an update on the protocol, we didn’t get it.”

The DUP, the region’s largest unionist party has blocked the formation of a new administration following May’s Assembly election and prevented the Assembly meeting to conduct legislative business as part of its protest over the protocol.

The DUP claims the protocol has undermined Northern Ireland’s place within the UK by creating economic barriers on trade entering the North from Britain.

The party has insisted it will not allow a return to powersharing until radical changes to the protocol are delivered.

Last week, Mr Heaton-Harris cut the pay of MLAs by 27.5 per cent to reflect the fact they are not doing their jobs as legislators.

If a new executive is not formed by January 19th, the British government assumes a legal responsibility to call a snap Assembly election by April 13th.

The meeting in Belfast comes as British foreign secretary James Cleverly is holding face-to-face talks with European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic in Brussels to discuss the protocol deadlock.

The meeting at the NIO is taking place as nurses across Northern Ireland strike over pay and conditions.

A similar strike by the Royal College of Nursing in the North in late 2019 was seen as a factor in securing a return to powersharing after the political impasse at Stormont.

Comments are closed.

Contact Newsdesk: +353 96 60900

More National News