Rishi Sunak is tonight meeting with Northern Ireland’s political parties as the Prime Minister bids to resolve the crisis at Stormont.
In his first visit to Northern Ireland since taking office, Mr Sunak was due to hold talks with both the DUP’s Sir Jeffrey Donaldson and Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill.
His two-day trip comes amid the continuing political deadlock at Stormont, which has prevented a power-sharing executive being formed since May.
The DUP are blocking the functioning of both the executive and the Northern Ireland Assembly as part of their protest against post-Brexit trade rules, known as the Northern Ireland Protocol.
But with hopes rising that Britain could soon strike a deal with the EU to end the bitter dispute over the Protocol, there is also a push to get Northern Ireland’s parties to return to power-sharing.
Naomi Long, the leader of the Alliance Party, the UUP’s Doug Beattie, and the SDLP’s Colum Eastwood were also expected to attend this evening’s talks in Belfast.
Downing Street said the PM would be hosting an ‘introductory meeting and informal discussions’ with Northern Ireland’s political leaders.
But, ahead of the talks, Ms O’Neill warned she wanted more than ‘tea and sympathy’ from the PM.
Rishi Sunak is tonight meeting with Northern Ireland’s political parties as the Prime Minister bids to resolve the crisis at Stormont
Ahead of the talks, Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill warned she wanted more than ‘tea and sympathy’ from the PM
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson’s DUP blocking the functioning of Stormont institutions as part of their protest against the Northern Ireland Protocol
The Stormont parties earlier met with Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris, which included discussions over when £600 in energy support payments would be reach households
Ms O’Neill and the other Stormont parties today met with Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris, which included discussions over when £600 in energy support payments would be rolled out to households in Northern Ireland.
Ms O’Neill claimed Mr Heaton-Harris was ‘bereft of a plan’ to restore power-sharing, adding: ‘I want a political meeting with the British Prime Minister.
‘I want to know what he’s doing to get the £600 into people’s pockets. I want to know what he’s doing to secure a deal on the Protocol and negotiate a way forward.
‘So I have no desire to have tea and sympathy with the Prime Minister, what I want to see is a political outcome to such an engagement.’
Sir Jeffrey said he hoped to hear a ‘renewal’ of Mr Sunak’s commitment to resolving the Protocol dispute and a ‘ramping up’ of negotiations between the UK and EU.
The PM attended last month’s British Irish Council summit in Blackpool, where he discussed the Protocol row and the Stormont crisis with Ireland’s PM Micheál Martin.
But no Northern Ireland parties were represented at the summit due to lack of a Stormont executive.
Ahead of his arrival in Northern Ireland this evening, Mr Sunak highlighted how the Ministry of Defence recently announced Harland & Wolff’s shipyard in Belfast will see the entire final assembly of three Royal Navy support ships, as part of a £1.6billion contract.
‘Northern Ireland – its people and its future – are rightly at the centre of our shipbuilding ambitions,’ the PM said.
‘And completing the next generation of our world class Royal Navy Support Ships – to strengthen our security at sea and across the globe – could not have found a better home than in Belfast, once the biggest shipyard in the world, with its proud tradition of skill and expertise.
‘The thousands of high value jobs and the skills that are gained from delivering it now will help to lay the foundations of prosperity for tomorrow.’
As part of the UK Government’s ongoing efforts to settle the Protocol row, Foreign Secretary James Cleverly travelled to Brussels earlier today for face-to-face talks with EU vice-president Maros Sefcovic.
There have been rising hopes in recent weeks that an agreement can soon be struck to end the bitter trade dispute between the UK and EU.
It has even been suggested that a deal could be finalised by February, ahead of the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in April.
US President Joe Biden is said to be planning a visit to Northern Ireland to coincide with the anniversary – but this is reportedly dependent on the Protocol row being resolved.
Following his talks with Mr Sefcovic, Mr Cleverly hailed the ‘important discussions’.
‘We are determined to find a solution to the Protocol that, above all else, protects the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement,’ he wrote on Twitter.
‘Our teams continue to meet and I look forward to speaking again soon.’
Mr Sefcovic also spoke of a ‘constructive meeting’ and said the EU was ‘determined to find joint solutions that work for people and businesses in Northern Ireland’
‘I want us to make the most of this window of opportunity,’ the Brussels official added in his own tweet.
Foreign Secretary James Cleverly held face-to-face talks with EU vice-president Maros Sefcovic, who is the bloc’s negotiator over the Northern Ireland Protocol
Following his talks with Mr Sefcovic, Mr Cleverly hailed the ‘important discussions’ and said he was ‘determined’ resolve the Protocol row
Unionists in Northern Ireland fear the Protocol has weakened their position as part of the United Kingdom
Ahead of the pair’s discussions, Downing Street said Prime Minister Rishi Sunak remained ‘hopeful’ of a deal with the EU.
The PM’s official spokesman said: ‘We haven’t set any deadline apart from wanting to resolve it as swiftly as possible.
‘There are talks ongoing both at officials level and the Foreign Secretary is keeping in touch with his counterpart.’
The spokesman added that reaching a ‘negotiated agreement’ over the Protocol row would be the PM’s ‘preference’.
But No10 did not rule out continuing with controversial legislation at Westminster – aimed at unilaterally overriding parts of the Protocol – if talks stalled.
The spokesman also played down the prospect of an imminent breakthrough during Mr Cleverly and Mr Sefcovic’s discussions this afternoon.
‘They’ve had a number of these conversations to check in on officials’ talks,’ he added.
‘The main differences is this is in-person rather than on the phone. I would say simply that it’s important to have face-to-face meetings from time to time.
‘It’s not linked to any specific moment in the discussions.’
The DUP are continuing to block the functioning of Stormont’s institutions in the absence of reforms to the Protocol.
Last week, Mr Heaton-Harris cut the pay of members of the Northern Ireland Assembly by 27.5 per cent to reflect the fact they are not doing their jobs as legislators.
If a new executive is not formed by 19 January, the UK Government will assume a legal responsibility to call a snap Assembly election by 13 April.
The Protocol was designed to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland.
But Britain has attacked the EU for being too rigid in its implementation of the Brexit agreement, such as the imposition of ‘bureaucratic’ checks on goods moving across the Irish Sea.
Unionists in Northern Ireland also fear the Protocol has weakened their position as part of the UK.