Benn pledges to forge new relationship after meeting O’Neill and Little-Pengelly

New Northern Ireland Secretary Hilary Benn has said his priority is to establish a new relationship between the UK Government and Stormont’s powersharing Executive.

Mr Benn was speaking after hosting a meeting with Northern Ireland’s First and deputy First Ministers Michelle O’Neill and Emma Little-Pengelly at Hillsborough Castle in Co Down on Saturday evening.

The new Secretary of State also met representatives of the Stormont parties during his first visit to the region since taking up the role.

He said: “I wanted to get to work as quickly as possible and was therefore pleased to be able to hold these initial discussions with the First and deputy First Ministers and representatives from the other parties.

“My immediate priorities are to establish a new relationship between the UK Government and the Northern Ireland Executive as we work together to foster economic growth and prosperity, and to improve public services.

“I want to ensure that we have a system in place for addressing the legacy of the past in a way that wins support from victims’ families and that all communities can have confidence in, and which is compliant with human rights.”

Mr Benn had been serving as the shadow NI secretary since 2023 and was chairman of the Brexit Select Committee for years.

MPs visit Stormont
Hilary Benn said his government was committed to the Good Friday Agreement (Liam McBurney)

The Leeds MP was among new Prime Minister Sir Keir Starmer’s Cabinet appointees.

Sir Keir and Mr Benn have previously said a Labour Government would repeal the controversial Legacy Act, introduced by the Tories to address Troubles legacy issues and widely opposed by all the main political parties in Northern Ireland.

Mr Benn was also vocal in urging the powersharing institutions to be revived during the three-year hiatus.

He takes over from the Conservatives’ Chris Heaton-Harris, who has been in the role for almost two years and did not contest the General Election.

Mr Benn said that the new UK Government was firmly committed to the 1998 Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.

He said: “We will work hard to deliver its vision for reconciliation, equality, respect for rights and parity of esteem.”

The Northern Ireland Secretary said his meeting with Ms O’Neill and Ms Little-Pengelly was “very constructive”.

“I look forward to building on our relationship in the months ahead,” he said.

Ms O’Neill said she had made the case for “fair funding” for health, education and public services in Northern Ireland during her party meeting with Mr Benn.

She added: “The cuts our people and public services have endured under the Tories must end now.

“We also reiterated the need for immediate funding to be released to build Casement Park. This would allow us to seize the enormous economic opportunities created by Euro 2028.

“The British Government must embrace the principles of rigorous impartiality, and respect the provisions in the Good Friday Agreement for constitutional change.

“We also called on the British Secretary of State to follow through on previous commitments to scrap the Tories’ shameful Legacy Act, which has failed victims and survivors.”

She added: “We will meet Keir Starmer in the days ahead and we will continue to press the British Government on the things that matter most to people, investment in public services, which deliver for all.”

New Prime Minister Sir Keir has already said he will visit Northern Ireland during his first days in office.

Mr Benn said had also had a telephone conversation with Ireland’s Tanaiste Micheal Martin on Friday.

He added: “As our nearest neighbour and co-guarantor of the Belfast Good Friday Agreement, our relationship with Ireland is of great importance.

“The new UK Government will work closely with the Irish Government to reset and strengthen the relationship between our two countries.”