Hilary Benn: New NI secretary says Casement Park ‘will be built’

image Caption, Hilary Benn speaks to reporters in Belfast on Sunday during her first visit to Northern Ireland since becoming foreign secretary.

  • Author, Kelly Bonner
  • Role, BBC News NI

The newly appointed Secretary of State for Northern Ireland told BBC News NI that Casement Park “will be built” but urged people to “get behind” him.

Speaking in Belfast on Sunday, Hilary Benn was not pressed to say whether the new Belfast stadium would be built in time for the Euros in 2028, but said “I will make a decision as soon as I am in a position to make it”.

However, he added that “there are two issues: first, the cost, and second, there is a certain amount of money in it, but it is not enough.”

“The other issue is that it has taken us extra time to try to get it built in time for the Euros,” he said. “But Casement Park will be built and as soon as I am in a position to make that decision I will do so. You have to bear with me.”

Earlier on Sunday Mr Benn met traders at St George’s Market in his first public visit as NI Secretary of State.

He told the waiting media that “it is a great privilege and honour to be appointed Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.”

image Caption, The Northern Ireland secretary at St George’s Market in Belfast on Sunday

On Saturday Mr Benn met some of Northern Ireland’s political leaders at Hillsborough Castle.

He met First Minister Michelle O’Neill and deputy First Minister Emma Little Pengelly, as well as representatives of various parties including the UUP and the SDLP.

On Sunday he said he was “very excited” by the discussions, adding that he wanted to forge “new relationships with the parties in Northern Ireland”.

He said his priority was to establish a new relationship between the UK Government and the Stormont Executive.

image Caption, Mr Benn meets First and Deputy First Ministers at Hillsborough Castle

‘We will work hard’

Their meetings at Hillsborough Castle came after they attended the first cabinet meeting of the new Labour government in London on the Saturday.

In a statement Mr Benn said he wanted to start work “as soon as possible” and was happy to have initial discussions with local politicians.

He said: “My immediate priorities are to forge a new relationship between the UK Government and the Northern Ireland Executive, as we work together to drive economic growth and prosperity, and improve public services.”

image Caption, Mr Benn was speaking to traders and members of the public at St George’s Market.

On the controversial subject of legacy, Mr Benn said he wanted to ensure there was “a system in place to deal with the legacy of the past” that “has the support of the families of victims and has the confidence of all communities and is in accordance with human rights.”

He said the new government was committed to the Good Friday Agreement and “the principle of consent, which is at its core”.

In a statement after Saturday’s meeting, Sinn Féin said its vice-president Michelle O’Neill told Mr Benn there was an urgent need for equitable funding and investment in public services.

Ms O’Neill was joined at Hillsborough Castle by a Sinn Féin delegation including Economy Minister Conor Murphy and recently returned Fermanagh and South Tyrone MP Pat Cullen.

“We have made the case strongly here for immediate and adequate funding for health, education and public services,” Ms O’Neill said.

image Caption, Recently returned SDLP MPs Colum Eastwood and Claire Hanna were also among those in attendance

The SDLP was represented by party leader Colum Eastwood MP and Claire Hanna MP.

Mr Eastwood said he had a “constructive meeting” with Mr Benn in which he urged him to make providing “emergency support for the health service” the most important priority of the government’s first 100 days.

Speaking about public sector budget pressures on Sunday, Mr Benn said the Stormont Executive would need to focus on its own spending and revenue raising.

He said that while public spending in Northern Ireland is higher than in England, “it is a question for the executive how the money is spent.”

“All public bodies, governments, institutions have to look at what is coming to them, what is going out and how they can make the most effective use of that.

“Historically, the government in Northern Ireland has not been as good at generating income as it should have been.”

image Source, Press I/PA

image Caption, New Northern Ireland Secretary Hilary Benn arrives at Hillsborough Castle to meet First and Deputy First Ministers

‘Reform is urgently needed’

Mr Benn said discussions would continue about future funding and “additional funding would be available when the main estimates are published”.

“The most important thing right now is to provide public services,” he said.

,[The Executive] There is a huge responsibility to improve the public service, because the amount of money received per capita is greater than what people in my constituency receive, and Northern Ireland has the worst waiting lists in the whole of the UK.

“We stand ready to offer advice, expertise and support because this is a huge task, but it is vitally important for the people of Northern Ireland.”

On Friday evening, Mr Benn spoke by phone to Tánaiste Micheál Martin.

Speaking on relations with Dublin, Mr Benn said: “As our closest neighbour and co-guarantor of the Belfast Good Friday Agreement, our relationship with Ireland is very important.”

He said: “The new British Government will work closely with the Irish Government to restore and strengthen relations between them.”

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