Northern Ireland

Hillary Benn to prioritise building new relationship with Stormont

Newly-appointed secretary of state visits north as taoiseach speaks of need to ‘reset Anglo-Irish relations’

The new Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Hilary Benn MP, is pictured meeting First Minister Michelle O’Neill and deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly at Hillsborough Caste on Saturday evening Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.
Secretary of State Hilary Benn with First Minister Michelle O’Neill and Deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly at Hillsborough Caste. PICTURE: KELVIN BOYES/PRESS EYE (Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye/Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye )

Labour’s newly-appointed secretary of state has promised to prioritise building a new relationship between the British government and Stormont’s power-sharing executive.

Hillary Benn was speaking after a meeting with First and Deputy First Ministers Michelle O’Neill and Emma Little-Pengelly at Hillsborough Castle on Saturday.

He also met representatives of the Stormont parties during his first visit to the region since taking up the role.

Mr Benn said wanted to “get to work as quickly as possible” and that an immediate priority was to work with Stormomnt to “foster economic growth and prosperity, and to improve public services”.

The Leeds MP said he wanted to ensure a system was in place for addressing legacy issues that had the support of victims’ families and all communities, while human rights compliant.

Mr Benn and his party leader Sir Keir Starmer have previously said a Labour government would repeal the Tories’ controversial Legacy Act, which is opposed by all the north’s main political parties.

The secretary of state said that the new British government was firmly committed to the Good Friday Agreement.

Ms O’Neill said she had used the meeting to make the case for “fair funding” for health, education and public services.

Taoiseach Simon Harris has said he wants to see improved Anglo-Irish relations
Taoiseach Simon Harris has said he wants to see improved Anglo-Irish relations. PICTURE: BRIAN LAWLESS/PA

Mr Benn’s visit to the north came as Taoiseach Simon Harris said the next generation would “never forgive us” if the opportunity to reset Anglo-Irish relations is not seized following Labour’s landslide victory.

In one of his first acts in power Sir Keir spoke with the taoiseach by phone and invited him to Downing Street on July 17.

Mr Harris told Sky News that the British-Irish relationship is “really strong”.

“At the end of the day, we’re neighbours, we’re friends, in many cases we’re family as well, and there’s an opportunity now, a real opportunity that we must seize and that the next generation will never forgive us for if we don’t, to press reset, to say yes it’s been a difficult few years, but you know what? We have so much more in common than divides us,” he said.

The taoiseach said Brexit had challenged the relationship between two islands and that he and the prime minister would “dig deep in terms of resetting Anglo-Irish relations”.

He also said Ireland would be an ally in any discussions the UK had in improving its relationship with the European Union.

It also emerged during the same interview that the Irish government has not committed to immediately dropping its inter-state legal case against British government’s Legacy Act.

Mr Harris said he wanted to work with Sir Keir Starmer over developing an approach to deal with the past.

Asked if Ireland would now drop its inter-state case against the UK, he said the process needed to taken “step by step”.

The taoiseach said he did not think Sir Keir would need to be pushed on his promise to repeal the Legacy Act.