Starmer says meetings with NI parties a reset

Sir Keir Starmer in the Great Hall at Stormont
[Reuters]

Northern Ireland's party leaders have given the new prime minister, Sir Keir Starmer, a warm welcome to Stormont.

"Constructive", "productive" and "positive" are some of the words they used to describe their meetings with the first Labour prime minister in 14 years.

Sir Keir met the first and deputy first ministers as well as executive and opposition representatives at Stormont, as part of his first visit official to Northern Ireland since taking up the role.

He was accompanied by the new Northern Ireland Secretary Hilary Benn and his chief of staff and former senior Stormont civil servant Sue Gray.

The prime minister travelled to Scotland at the weekend and went to Cardiff after leaving Belfast.

Starmer at Stormont: 'constructive' and 'positive' discussions

Michelle O'Neill, Emma Little-Pengelly and Sir Keir Starmer outside Stormont Castle
The first and deputy first ministers met the prime minister outside Stormont Castle on Monday [Reuters]

Speaking afterwards Sir Keir emphasised a "reset" in relationships between his government and the executive.

"Being here on day three of the new Labour government is a clear statement of intent about the importance of Northern Ireland to me and my government, about resetting relationships and moving forward in a respectful and collaborative way," he told journalists.

The new prime minister distanced himself from the "instability" of the former Conservative government.

"My government has a mandate for change and stability here in Northern Ireland and a different way of doing politics," he said.

'Like difference between daylight and dark'

Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald described her party’s talks with the new prime minister as “constructive and very friendly”.

She said dealing with the new Labour government, compared to the previous Conservative government, was like the difference between "daylight and dark".

One of the issues discussed at the short meeting was funding for the redevelopment of Casement Park stadium in west Belfast.

Ms McDonald said: “We expect to see progress on that matter in the near future.”

She was joined at the meeting by First Minister Michelle O’Neill and MPs John Finucane and Pat Cullen.

Also discussed at the talks was funding for public services in Northern Ireland, the legacy of the Troubles in Northern Ireland and the situation in Gaza.

Pat Cullen, Michelle O'Neill, Mary Lou McDonald and John Finucane at the steps of the Great Hall in Stormont
Sinn Féin MPs Pat Cullen and John Finucane were in attendance during the PM meeting [PA Media]

The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader Gavin Robinson said he believed his party would have a good relationship with the new prime minister.

He described the meeting as "very productive" and highlighted the importance of devolution.

After meeting Sir Keir at Stormont, Mr Robinson described him as a “unionist” and someone who has a detailed grasp of Northern Ireland.

Asked if he trusted the new prime minister, he said he liked him.

Mr Robinson was accompanied at the meeting by Deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly, Stormont Education Minister Paul Givan and MP Sammy Wilson.

Alliance leader Naomi Long also said she had a "constructive and positive meeting" with both Sir Keir and Mr Benn.

She said the prime minister was keen to increase stability across the UK, and that it was put to him that in Northern Ireland "fiscal and political reform" was a baseline in order for this to work.

Mrs Long also said she was feeling positive about renewed east-west relations.

"Hopefully this will mark a new start both in terms of relationships between Belfast and London, but also I would hope London and Dublin," she said.

"Certainly the last government I think left us with a very toxic legacy, and I hope that will be reversed under the current prime minister."

'A new dawn'

The Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) leader Doug Beattie said he raised the need for more funding for public services, particularly the health service, with the prime minister.

Bringing both Health Minister Mike Nesbitt and the former health minister and newly elected South Antrim MP Robin Swann with him, Mr Beattie said the meeting was "very positive" and could be used to build upon relationships.

Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) leader Colum Eastwood said he felt a “collective sigh of relief” at the end of the Conservative government.

He added that Sir Keir is someone "who gets it" and that whilst they had a good discussion, the PM recognised the party would be holding him to account on key issues such as Casement Park and the Legacy Act.

“This seems like a new dawn,” he said.

Analysis: Enda McClafferty, political editor

On a day when reset was the buzz word, Prime Minister Keir Starmer appears to have reset his position on a border poll.

Having previously told the BBC in 2021 he would campaign for Northern Ireland to remain in the UK he has now changed his mind.

Instead he said his government would adopt the role of “honest broker” in any constitutional debate.

That, he said, is in keeping with the Good Friday Agreement which states it is for those on the island of Ireland to decide their fate.

It is a tricky minefield for a Labour prime minister to negotiate but Keir Starmer knows how Northern Ireland works.

It was a careful and deliberate reset on his first day in Northern Ireland as prime minister.

Though the DUP leader Gavin Robinson insisted the prime minister is a unionist at heart.

Casement Park 'has to be built'

The new Secretary of State Hilary Benn arrived in Northern Ireland on Saturday and held talks with most of the main political parties.

On Sunday, he visited businesses in Belfast city centre, where he told reporters that Casement Park “has to be built”, but urged people to bear with him while he ploughs through the issues.

Labour has been urged by political parties and sporting organisations to commit funding to ensure the stadium can be redeveloped in time for Euro 2028.

Delays and spiralling construction costs mean it has now been suggested that far from the original estimation of £76m, building the stadium could now cost more than £300m.

Casement Park, a Gaelic games stadium, hasn't hosted a game since 2013 but is earmarked to be Northern Ireland's sole venue for the tournament if it can be redeveloped in time.

Mr Benn said he wouldn’t be pressured into saying Casement Park will be built in time for the Euros in 2028 but said “as soon as I’m in a position to make that decision I will”.