Rishi Sunak hails 'special opportunity' as he starts Northern Ireland visit

Rishi Sunak
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak after meeting with members of the Northern Ireland Air Ambulance service

The prime minister has hailed a "special opportunity" for Northern Ireland as he began a visit marking the return of power-sharing government.

Rishi Sunak said Northern Ireland politicians can now "focus on delivery for families and businesses".

Devolved government returned in Northern Ireland for the first time in two years on Saturday.

Mr Sunak is due to attend Stormont later, as is Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister) Leo Varadkar.

He will meet ministers including First Minister Michelle O'Neill, who made history by becoming the first nationalist to hold the role, and Deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly.

Power sharing returned after the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) ended its boycott over post-Brexit trade rules.

The DUP agreed to re-enter the institutions after a deal was struck with Mr Sunak's government, which included the passing of new legislation at Westminster.

'Committed to making it work'

This is the prime minister's seventh visit to Northern Ireland since he took office, but it's the first time Northern Ireland has had a fully functioning government in that time.

Speaking on Sunday night when visiting volunteers and crew at the Air Ambulance charity, Mr Sunak said the restoration of devolved government was "a fantastic cause for optimism".

"Everyone has worked really hard to bring this moment about, everyone is committed to making it work," he said.

Analysis box by Jayne McCormack, NI political correspondent
Analysis box by Jayne McCormack, NI political correspondent

Mission accomplished - with power-sharing back in action, even the prime minister is in town to mark the occasion.

Given the government's long-running efforts to get a deal with the DUP over the line, Rishi Sunak has reasons to be cheerful.

But while he will pose for pictures with the parties, they will be keen to pose questions to him about Stormont's future finances.

There's already a multi-billion pound package about to be handed over - but is the prime minister prepared to part with any more cash to keep the parties happy?

That's the big question waiting for him on the hill.

The government has also pledged £3.3bn for the restored Northern Ireland Executive, with much of the money aimed at stabilising public services and settling public sector pay disputes.

Speaking on Sunday, Mr Sunak said that money "represents a generous and fair settlement for Northern Ireland".

It is what's needed to "ensure public finances are sustainable for the long term", he added.

Mr Sunak will be at Stormont to meet political leaders but is also due to carry out a number of community engagements while he is Northern Ireland.

The prime minister has often said that getting Stormont up and running was a key priority for his government.

His government renegotiated the Northern Ireland Protocol to the Windsor Framework in 2023, but it was not enough to persuade the DUP to return to Stormont.

Speaking at Westminster last week, Mr Sunak thanked the DUP for the "significant steps" taken in talks towards the return of devolved government.

He also thanked the other Northern Ireland parties for the "patience that they have shown after two years without an executive".