Sunak Faces Irish Nationalists and Call for Funding in Belfast

(Bloomberg) -- UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak will meet with political leaders in Northern Ireland on Monday to mark the restoration of the devolved government in Belfast after a two-year hiatus and answer questions about funding for public services.

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Newly appointed Northern Ireland first minister, Michelle O’Neill, who envisions a referendum within a decade aimed at leaving the UK to unify with Ireland, will greet Sunak at a gathering of the assembly. She has criticized the Conservative government in London for starving the region of money.

While the meeting will highlight those frictions, the event marks a rare victory for Sunak, who is trailing in the polls ahead of an election and struggling to make progress on his efforts to boost the UK economy and slash immigration. Sunak’s government helped overcome a boycott of the legislature by the main UK unionist party that prevented the assembly from working until now.

O’Neill was sworn in Saturday, almost two years after her Sinn Fein party won national elections for the first time in 2022. Sunak will also meet with Leo Varadkar, the premier of the Republic of Ireland, who will be in Belfast Monday for the resumption of the assembly.

“We have made significant progress towards a brighter future for people here,” Sunak said in County Antrim outside Belfast on Sunday evening. “Everyone also agrees that now is the time to focus on delivering on the day-to-day issues that matter to people, to families, to businesses in Northern Ireland.”

O’Neill’s appointment marked a milestone moment in the region’s turbulent history. It’s the first time an Irish nationalist from Sinn Fein has held the post in a legislature that has traditionally been controlled by unionist parties loyal to the UK.

In an interview with Sky News aired on Sunday, O’Neill said that she would govern for all people of Northern Ireland while continuing to work for unification with the Republic of Ireland.

“I believe also equally that we can do two things at once: we can have power-sharing, we can make it stable, we can work together every day in terms of public services and whilst we also pursue our equally legitimate aspirations,” O’Neill said.

The first minister rejected the position of Sunak’s government that a referendum on unification is still decades away, saying she could envision such a vote within 10 years time.

“Yes, I believe we’re in the decade of opportunity, and there are so many things that are changing — all the old norms, the nature of this seat, the fact that a nationalist republican was never supposed to be first minister. That all speaks to that change in terms of what’s happened here on this island.”

In an interview with the Press Association, O’Neill took a swipe at Sunak’s Conservative government, saying he’s held back funds for the region.

“This place has been starved of public services funding for over a decade because of the Tories in London, we can do much better than that,” she said. Sunak on Sunday said the government funding offer represents “a generous and fair settlement.”

Sunak’s Northern Ireland minister said the government’s funding program gives the region an opportunity to build itself as a major business hub.

“There is a strong foundation now with a big amount of money — £3.3 billion is in this deal to transform Northern Ireland’s public services,” said Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton Harris said in an interview with GB News. “With Northern Ireland’s unique status for good being manufactured here, having unfettered access to both the European Union and UK markets, this is going to be a great place to invest.”

Varadkar, the Republic of Ireland premier, has been critical of some aspects of the deal that Sunak struck with the Democratic Unionist Party to convince them to end their boycott of the legislature. Varadkar said Friday he had “some difficulties” with the new rules on trade put forward by Sunak’s government.

“I don’t like the negative language about the all-Ireland economy and I think it very much puts the British government in the place of being advocates of the Union, whereas in the past they’d signed up to rigorous impartiality,” he said. “But none of those things crossed any red lines in my view.”

O’Neill’s Sinn Fein party was founded in the early 20th century to fight for independence and was seen as the political wing of the Irish Republican Army during the most violent years of a militant campaign to break away from the UK that claimed about 3,500 lives. Support for the party has grown since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which led to the end of the conflict and in 2022 Sinn Fein won the most seats in the legislature for the first time.

O’Neill, 47, had been prevented from taking up her role after the DUP quit the power-sharing institutions to protest Brexit trading rules it said were weakening Northern Ireland’s position within the UK. That left Northern Ireland without a working government, putting a strain on public services and leading to protests by civil servants.

The DUP last week reached a deal with Sunak’s government to end its boycott of the legislature, which included £3.3 billion ($4.2 billion) in funding for the new executive and measures it said would strengthen the union.

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