Sir Keir Starmer says meetings with NI parties are a reset

Northern Ireland’s party leaders have given new Prime Minister Sir Keir Starmer a warm welcome to Stormont.

“Constructive”, “productive” and “positive” are some of the words he used to describe his meetings with the Labour prime minister for the first time in 14 years.

Sir Keir met First and Deputy First Ministers as well as Executive and Opposition representatives at Stormont in what was his first official visit to Northern Ireland since taking office.

He was accompanied by the new Northern Ireland secretary, Hilary Benn, and her chief of staff, Sue Gray, a former senior Stormont civil servant.

  • Author, Jane McCormack and Mark Simpson
  • Role, BBC News NI
video caption, Party leaders welcomed new Prime Minister Sir Keir Starmer to Stormont.

Starmer at Stormont: Discussions ‘constructive’ and ‘positive’

image Caption, The First and Deputy First Ministers met the Prime Minister outside Stormont Castle on Monday

Speaking afterwards, Sir Keir emphasised the need for a “reset” in the relationship between his Government and the executive.

“To be here on the third day of the new Labour government is a clear statement of the importance of Northern Ireland to me and my government, and of our intention to reset the relationship and move forward in a respectful and cooperative way,” he told reporters.

The new Prime Minister distanced himself from the “instability” of the previous Conservative government.

“My government has a mandate to bring change and stability to Northern Ireland and a different way of doing politics,” he said.

‘The difference between daylight and darkness’

Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald described her party’s talks with the new prime minister as “constructive and very friendly”.

He said working with the new Labour government was like the difference between “daylight and darkness” compared to the previous Conservative government.

One of the issues discussed at the brief meeting was funding for the redevelopment of the Casement Park stadium in west Belfast.

Ms MacDonald said: “We hope to see progress in this matter in the near future.”

He was joined at the meeting by First Minister Michelle O’Neill and MPs John Finucane and Pat Cullen.

The talks also discussed funding for public services in Northern Ireland, the legacy of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, and the situation in Gaza.

image Caption, Sinn Féin MPs Pat Cullen and John Finucane were also present during the Prime Minister’s meeting

Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader Gavin Robinson said he believed his party would have a good relationship with the new prime minister.

He described the meeting as “very productive” and highlighted the importance of decentralisation.

After meeting Sir Keir at Stormont, Mr Robinson described him as a “unionist” and someone with a vast knowledge of Northern Ireland.

Asked if he had confidence in the new prime minister, he said he liked him.

Mr Robinson was accompanied at the meeting by Deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly, Stormont Education Minister Paul Givan and MP Sammy Wilson.

image Caption, The Prime Minister and NI Secretary were welcomed by Assembly Speaker Edwin Poots

Coalition leader Naomi Long also said she had a “constructive and positive meeting” with both Sir Keir and Mr Benn.

He said the Prime Minister was keen to increase stability in the UK and was told that “fiscal and political reform” in Northern Ireland was the baseline for that.

Mrs Long also said she felt positive about the renewed East-West relations.

“Hopefully this will mark a new beginning in terms of the relationship between Belfast and London, and I hope also between London and Dublin,” she said.

“I certainly think the previous government has left us a very toxic legacy, and I hope that will change under the leadership of the current prime minister.”

image Caption, A small protest was held outside Parliament House upon Sir Keir’s arrival

‘A new dawn’

Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) leader Doug Beattie said he had raised with the Prime Minister the need for more funding for public services, particularly the health service.

Bringing with him Health Minister Mike Nesbitt and former Health Minister and newly elected MP for South Antrim Robin Swann, Mr Beattie said the meeting had been “very positive” and could be used to improve relations.

Colum Eastwood, leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), said there was a “collective relief” at the end of Conservative government.

He said Sir Keir was a man “who gets that” and although they had a good discussion, the Prime Minister recognised the party would hold him to account on key issues such as Casement Park and the Legacy Act.

“It feels like a new dawn,” he said.

Analysis: Enda McLafferty, political editor

On the day the word reset was doing the rounds, Prime Minister Keir Starmer restated his position on the border survey.

Earlier in 2021 he told the BBC that he would campaign to keep Northern Ireland in the UK, but now he has changed his mind.

Instead he said his government would adopt the role of an “honest mediator” in any constitutional debate.

He said this was in line with the Good Friday Agreement, which states that the people living on the island of Ireland get to decide their own fate.

This is a difficult deal for a Labour prime minister to strike, but Keir Starmer knows how Northern Ireland works.

It was a careful and deliberate decision on his first day in Northern Ireland as prime minister.

Although DUP leader Gavin Robinson insisted the Prime Minister was a unionist at heart.

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Casement Park must be built

New Foreign Minister Hilary Benn arrived in Northern Ireland on Saturday and held talks with most of the main political parties.

Political parties and sports organisations have urged the Labour Party to make the funds available to ensure the stadium is redeveloped in time for Euro 2028.

Due to delays and rising construction costs, it is now estimated that the cost of building the stadium could exceed £300 million, far exceeding the original estimate of £76 million.

Casement Park, the Gaelic games stadium, has not hosted a game since 2013 but could become Northern Ireland’s only venue for the tournament if it can be redeveloped in time.

Mr Benn said he would not be pressured to say whether Casement Park would be built in time for the 2028 Euros, but added that “as soon as I am in a position to make that decision I will do so”.

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