Northern Ireland

Keir Starmer says he is ‘committed to Good Friday Agreement’ in answer to question about united Ireland poll

PM met political leaders at Stormont on Monday

British prime minister Keir Starmer and Secretary of State Hilary Benn MP pictured meeting First Minister Michelle O’Neill and deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly at Stormont Castle on Monday morning

Sir Keir Starmer has said he is “absolutely committed to the Good Friday Agreement” in answer to a question about the potential for a referendum on Irish unity.

The new British prime minister was speaking as he visited the north for the first time since Labour won last week’s general election.

He met First Minister Michelle O’Neill and deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly before speaking to leaders of Stormont’s main parties as he continues his tour of the UK.

Asked about the potential for a referendum on Irish unity, Sir Keir Starmer said he wanted to reaffirm the principles of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

He said: “This is provided for by the Good Friday Agreement, the framework is set out and I am absolutely committed to the Good Friday Agreement.

“Today is a recommitment to that and to the approach and the role of the UK government in that as the honest broker.

“I am the prime minister for the whole of the UK, elected into office just a few days ago.

“But to reaffirm the importance of the principles of the Good Friday Agreement is part and parcel of why I am here today.”

Mr Starmer said he understood concerns around resourcing of public services in Northern Ireland and wanted to work to resolve them constructively.

Speaking after today’s separate meetings with Stormont parties, the British prime minister said: “A number of issues were discussed this morning and as you would expect, finance came up, the health service came up, Casement Park came up.

“We addressed those constructively.

“I understand the case in relation to investment and financing in particular.

“We will work to resolve those issues constructively.

“Today was very much about the way in which we will address those issues, those challenges and to be very clear about the importance of it to me and the collaborative way in which we will take this forward.”

Mr Starmer said his government would bring about an end to instability in relations between the UK and Ireland.

He said: “I have already had discussions with the Taoiseach (Simon Harris) and others, again to make it clear the approach I will take to reset and make sure those relationships are collaborative, that they are respectful.

“Of course there are issues, including in relation to (legacy) litigation. But the most important thing is the way in which we will approach this.

“I treat the mandate that I was given in the General Election as a mandate for doing politics differently, a mandate for stability, much needed stability.

“I think one of the big problems of the last 14 years, but particularly the last six to eight years has been instability, a lot of chopping and changing.

“That all ends today. I have had very constructive discussions not only here in Northern Ireland but with the Taosieach earlier on.”

Mr Starmer said visiting Northern Ireland on the third day of his Labour Government showed the importance of the region to him.

Speaking in the Great Hall at Stormont, the prime minister said: “I have had the opportunity this morning to have discussions with the First Minister, the deputy First Minister and all of the political parties in the Northern Ireland Executive.

“I have made clear that being here on day three of the new Labour Government is a clear statement of intent about the importance of Northern Ireland to me and my government, about resetting relationships and moving forward in a respectful, collaborative way.

“We have had very constructive and positive discussions this morning.

“I have been very clear that my Government has a mandate for change, for stability here in Northern Ireland and a different way of doing politics.”

Ms O’Neill and Ms Little-Pengelly greeted Mr Starmer and new Secretary of State Hilary Benn at the castle entrance before they held a meeting inside. Ms O’Neill congratulated him on his electoral success and they discussed Westminster and Stormont parliamentary schedules.

After half an hour with Stormont’s leaders, the new prime minister then moved on to Parliament Buildings, where he was greeted at the foot of the landmark steps by Assembly Speaker Edwin Poots.

He then held talks with representatives from the main Stormont parties.

Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald said her party had a “very constructive, very friendly” meeting with Mr Starmer at Stormont.

Accompanied by First Minister Michelle O’Neill, Ms McDonald said: “We have discussed with him all of the issues of concern and also the opportunities that now present themselves.

“Clearly the issues around the financial sustainability of the north, the financing of public services is a matter of concern for all of us.

“Issues around the legacy legislation. We very much welcome the commitment to repeal that.

“We also welcome the very firm assurances in respect of Casement Park and we expect to see progress on that matter in the near future.”

DUP leader Gavin Robinson said he talked to the prime minister about the ongoing financial challenges facing people in Northern Ireland.

Speaking at Stormont, Mr Robinson said: “We had the opportunity not only to talk to him about the importance of devolution in Northern Ireland but the political process itself and the need for a proactive British government to carefully nurture relationships within Northern Ireland.

“We talked to him about the ongoing challenges to deliver for people of Northern Ireland.”

Mr Robinson said it had been a “productive discussion”.

He added: “He has the opportunity to make significant changes and advance things positively.”

Alliance party leader Naomi Long said she hoped the Labour government would mark a “new start” in terms of relations with Northern Ireland.

She said: “We had the opportunity to raise with him the importance of the impartiality of government in terms of its engagement with local parties and with the Assembly.

“I think he understands how important that is given his history in working in Northern Ireland.

“It also gave us an opportunity to talk to him further about some pressing issues, in particular I raised the issue of legacy.”

She added: “Quite a lot to get through at the meeting but all very positively received and hopefully this will mark a new start in terms of relationships between Belfast and London but also between London and Dublin.

“Certainly the last government left us with a very toxic legacy and I think that will be reversed with the current prime minister.”

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said that Sir Keir Starmer understands Northern Ireland.

Mr Eastwood said: “I think lots of people have given a bit of a collective sigh of relief that we’ve seen the back of the Tory party from government here, 14 years of destroying our public services, 14 years of destroying the economy and family finances.

“This seems like a new dawn and we are very happy that the Labour Party have now taken over control of the British Government.

“Keir Starmer is somebody who gets it, he understands this place, he has been here many times, he worked here and he knew the issues before we even raised them.

“Even saying that, we still raised them. This place needs more money to function, our health service is at the point of collapse and can’t survive much longer without a proper injection of funding.

“We also talked about the issue of Casement Park which needs to be built and needs to be built as soon as possible.”

UUP leader Doug Beattie said he had raised issues about the funding of public services in Northern Ireland.

Speaking following his Stormont meeting with Mr Starmer, Mr Beattie said: “It was a short 10 minutes with the prime minister.

“We see it as the opportunity to build relationships, we already have good relationships with the prime minister’s team.

“We absolutely ensured that he knew that we see a fundamental problem in the funding model for our public services, in particular health.

“We have already reached out to Labour representatives with regards to how do we improve the outcomes in health.”

Mr Starmer arrived at Stormont Castle early on Monday morning as he begins his first full week in office, ahead of travelling to the Nato summit in Washington on Tuesday.

The 61-year-old won last Thursday’s UK General Election with a Labour landslide that saw his party take 412 seats.

Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 8th July 2024 The new Prime Minister Keir Starmer and Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Hilary Benn MP, pictured meeting First Minister Michelle O’Neill and deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly at Stormont Castle on Monday morning. Photo by Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye.

The Conservative Party saw their worst General Election result in its history, finishing with just 121 seats.

After half an hour with Stormont’s leaders, the new prime miinister then moved on to Parliament Buildings, where he was greeted at the foot of the landmark steps by Assembly Speaker Edwin Poots.

He is then holding talks with representatives from the main Stormont parties.

He is likely to face questions about funding for cash-strapped public services in Northern Ireland as well as coming under pressure from Ms O’Neill to commit to funding the redevelopment of the Casement Park stadium, which has been earmarked to host Euro 2028 matches.

He is also likely to be asked about delivering on his party’s manifesto pledge to repeal the controversial Legacy Act.

“We must turn the page and secure investment, prosperity, and stability for future generations to come.”

The visit follows the arrival on Saturday of his new Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Hilary Benn.

Mr Benn has said that out of issues demanding his attention in his new in-tray, the Casement Park project is

“probably the most urgent”.