Northern Ireland news

Taoiseach Micheál Martin promises a 'pragmatic' approach to cross-border relations

Micheál Martin on his first visit to Belfast since becoming taoiseach. Picture by Hugh Russell

Micheál Martin has pledged to be an "engaging, understanding taoiseach" who plans to adopt a "pragmatic" approach to cross-border relations.

The Fianna Fáil leader was speaking yesterday during his first visit to Northern Ireland since taking office last month at the head of the Republic's new coalition government.

Mr Martin had a joint meeting at Stormont with First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill, as well as holding separate discussions with Secretary of State Brandon Lewis, SDLP leader Colum Eastwood, Ulster Unionist counterpart Steve Aiken and Alliance deputy leader Stephen Farry.

READ MORE: Analysis: Micheál Martin treads carefully through a tricky political landscape

It was announced during his visit that key political players north and south will come together at the end of this month for the first full meeting of the North South Ministerial Council in three and a half years.

The cross-border council will meet at Dublin Castle on July 31.

Mr Martin told a press conference that the Good Friday Agreement was his "touchstone" and that he had a "very good series of meetings" with the northern representatives.

The taoiseach repeated his belief that a border poll would be "very divisive" and when asked about the Dublin government's new shared Ireland unit he said it would work "without prejudice to people's political positions".

Michelle O Neill said she spoke to the taoiseach about the potential implications of Brexit. Picture by Mal McCann

He said he would prefer to explore "the economic, social and political issues that would enable us to share the island in a peaceful way" and promised to take a pragmatic approach based on nurturing key relationships underpinning peace and reconciliation on the island.

The Fianna Fáil leader said he understood the need to build relations and had met with loyalists and unionists in the past.

"I will be an engaging, understanding taoiseach, trying to keep people together and trying to move forward on the economic front in particular, and also in terms of getting projects over the line that we have been talking about for some time," he said.

Mrs Foster said the leaders had a productive discussion around areas of mutual interest.

"As two jurisdictions sharing an island, it makes perfect sense that Northern Ireland seeks to build a positive relationship with our neighbours in the Republic of Ireland," she said.

She said she was keen to engage in "positive dialogue" with the taoiseach based on "mutual respect for both jurisdictions and understanding of each other's differences".

Taoiseach Micheal Martin leaves Stormont Castle after meeting with Sinn Fein's Michelle O'Neill and DUP leader Arlene Foster. Picture by Mal McCann

Ms O'Neill said they discussed economic recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic as well as the public health response and the need for a joined-up approach across the island.

"We spoke about the potential implications of Brexit and the pressing concerns this raises," she said.

"I set out the need to work together to protect the needs and interests of people and businesses across this island."

Mr Eastwood said closer cross-border cooperation was needed "more than ever".

"The scale of the challenge is stark but we have a chance to fundamentally reshape the lives of people in communities across Ireland," he said.

Mr Aiken said he would to see relations return to where they were three years ago "where we had a respectful dialogue between north and south".

Alliance MP Stephen Farry said they shared common ground with the Irish government on many issues.

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