British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak met on Monday Northern Ireland's new power-sharing executive, during a visit to Belfast after an end to a nearly two-year political crisis that saw the region without an executive.
First Minister Michelle O'Neill of the Irish nationalist Sinn Fein party and deputy first minister Emma Little-Pengelly from the pro-UK Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) called on Britain to boost its budget offer for the region.
What did Sunak say?
Sunak hailed his "very constructive meetings" with the new executive, describing it as "a historic and important day for the country, because Northern Ireland's politicians are back in charge, making decisions on behalf of their people, which is exactly how it should be."
"Now, our new deal gives them more funding and more powers than they have ever had, so they can deliver for families and businesses across Northern Ireland. And that's what everyone's priority is now," he said on Monday.
He also waved off speculation that O'Neill's election could signal the possibility of a united Ireland.
"It is not constitutional change, it is delivering on the day-to-day things that matter to people," Sunak said.
A referendum on Irish unity is at the discretion of the British government, but the terms of the Good Friday Agreement state that the UK should call such a referendum "if at any time it appears likely ... that a majority of those voting" would support Northern Ireland ceasing to be part of the UK.
When Northern Ireland was formed, the population split was roughly two-thirds Protestant to one-third Catholic. A 2021 census showed Catholics outnumbering Protestants for the first time.
But although Sinn Fein was the largest single party in 2022's election, it still claimed less than 30% of the vote.
Controversy over budget
The UK government had offered £3.3 billion (roughly $4.2 billion or €3.85 billion) to Northern Ireland, as part of an incentive to overcome a two-year political deadlock that stood in the way of electing a new government.
Sunak described the offer as "significant and generous."
Meanwhile, Little-Pengelly said the Belfast ministers would be "seeking to ensure the UK government provides sufficient funding in a package to fulfill its promises on public sector pay."
London's budget offer came in December following talks with all parties. Earlier, Sunak's government had refused to increase the £14.2 billion annual budget, despite inflation and cost-of-living pressures which fueled the biggest public sector strike in a generation in January.
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.
He nevertheless added that now with the newly appointed government, they "will be able to talk directly to their counterparts in His Majesty's Treasury, and if there's data to prove otherwise I'm quite sure they'll find a listening ear."
New government following two-year deadlock
The 47-year-old O'Neill had been first minister-designate since May 2022, when Sinn Fein emerged as the largest party in elections for the 90-seat Northern Ireland Assembly. However, she had not been able to take up the role of first minister because of a boycott of the assembly by Sinn Fein's arch-rival, the DUP.
The DUP said it was unhappy about post-Brexit trading rules for Northern Ireland, which is the only part of the UK to retain open-border access to an EU member state in the Republic of Ireland.
Under the 1998 peace deal, signed when the UK was a member of the EU, the land border needs to be kept open with no customs checks and infrastructure.
As a result, checks had to be introduced on goods arriving in Northern Ireland from mainland Britain instead.
The arrangement — effectively keeping only Northern Ireland in the EU single market— upset unionists who feared it risked cutting the province adrift from the rest of the UK. In turn, some voiced fears that this would make a united Ireland more likely. Critics questioned whether the DUP's real source of dissatisfaction was the prospect, for the first time in decades, of not leading the government in Stormont.
The DUP finally agreed to a deal this week after the UK government eased customs checks and other constraints on goods crossing the Irish Sea. That followed the agreement of the so-called Windsor Framework with the EU to make the changes possible.
rmt/msh (AP, dpa, Reuters)