POLITICS

Irish and UK leaders are in Belfast to celebrate the end of Northern Ireland’s political deadlock

Feb 5, 2024, 2:39 AM | Updated: 5:24 pm

Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, right poses for the media with Northern Ireland's First Minis...

Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, right poses for the media with Northern Ireland's First Minister Michelle O'Neill, left, and Deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly as he arrives Stormont Castle in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Monday, Feb. 5, 2024. O'Neill has made history by becoming the first Irish nationalist leader of Northern Ireland as the government returned to work after a two-year boycott by unionists. (AP Photo/Peter Morrison)
Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

(AP Photo/Peter Morrison)

LONDON (AP) — The leaders of the U.K. and Ireland went to Belfast Monday to meet Northern Ireland’s newly revived government and bask in a good-news moment after two years of political crisis.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Irish counterpart Leo Varadkar visited the new administration at Belfast’s Stormont Castle as its ministers met for the first time. The ministers wasted no time before pressing London for more money to patch up Northern Ireland’s creaking public services.

Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly appointed a power-sharing government on Saturday after a two-year hiatus sparked when the main British unionist party walked out in February 2022.

The Democratic Unionist Party boycotted the administration to protest post-Brexit trading arrangements that it said undermined Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom. The party was coaxed into returning last week after the U.K. promised to eliminate most checks on goods moving to Northern Ireland from the rest of the U.K.

Under power-sharing rules established as part of Northern Ireland’s peace process, the administration in Belfast must include both British unionists and Irish nationalists. The U.K. and the Republic of Ireland both have roles as guarantors of the peace.

The new administration is led by First Minister Michelle O’Neill of Sinn Fein, the party allied with the Irish Republican Army during Northern Ireland’s decades of violence known as “The Troubles.” Her appointment was historic, marking the first time an Irish nationalist, who aspires to take Northern Ireland out of the U.K. and unite it with the republic, has held the post.

In practice, nationalists and unionists will continue to govern in uneasy balance. The post of deputy first minister – held by Emma Little-Pengelly of the DUP – is officially equal to the first minister, and neither can govern without the other.

O’Neill said on the weekend that she believed a referendum on Irish unity could take place in the next 10 years, after the U.K. government said any such move was decades away. Under the terms of the Good Friday agreement, such a vote can take place if there is evidence a majority of people in Northern Ireland support joining the republic. Polls suggest a majority currently oppose the idea.

Sunak said Monday that “everyone’s priority” was getting the government back up and running.

“It is not constitutional change, it is delivering on the day-to-day things that matter to people,” he said.

Varadkar, whose government in principle supports a united Ireland, also said the question of reunification was “not for today.”

The DUP boycott left Northern Ireland’s 1.9 million people without a functioning administration to make key decisions as the cost of living soared and backlogs strained the creaking public health system.

The U.K. government has agreed to give Northern Ireland more than 3 billion pounds ($3.8 billion) as part of an incentive to restore the government. Already, the Belfast administration says it’s not enough.

Little-Pengelly said the ministers in Belfast would be “seeking to ensure the U.K. government provides sufficient funding in a package to fulfill its promises on public sector pay.”

Chris Heaton-Harris, the U.K.’s Northern Ireland secretary, said the package was “ample for the time being.”

“I believe the new set of ministers are completely capable of running their public finances perfectly well with the fair and generous funding package we’ve given them,” he told the BBC.

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Irish and UK leaders are in Belfast to celebrate the end of Northern Ireland’s political deadlock