Northern Ireland

Simon Harris in Belfast: Taoiseach told of hopes for ‘more positive relationship’ with unionists

Taoiseach Simon Harris with First Minister Michelle O’Neill and deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly, during a press conference outside Stormont Castle
Taoiseach Simon Harris with First Minister Michelle O’Neill and deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly, during a press conference outside Stormont Castle (Liam McBurney/PA)

Deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly has told Taoiseach Simon Harris she is looking forward to a “more positive relationship” with him than his predecessor Leo Varadkar as Mr Harris made his first official visit to the north.

The Taoiseach discussed the return of the powersharing institutions in the north as he met First Minister Michelle O’Neill and Ms Little-Pengelly at Stormont Castle.

Ms O’Neill said: “It has been very positive, a lot of challenges, but positivity for the politics to work.”

Mr Harris responded: “It is great to see, giving people real hope.”

Ms O’Neill said the meeting focused on areas of “shared collaboration”.

Speaking to the media at Stormont Castle, Ms O’Neill said: “I am very glad he has taken the opportunity to be here early in his tenure to talk about the areas of shared collaboration, partnership working, particularly around areas that the Irish Government have already identified, particularly around the Shared Island Fund.

“A good opportunity to again underline our commitment to the A5, particularly given the week that’s been and two more young people tragically losing their lives on that very dangerous stretch of road.

“Clearly a lot of areas of opportunity for advancement, particularly now that we have the north-south ministerial bodies back up and working again.”

She added: “We talked about some of the those areas of economic development, we talked about the opportunities we have in terms of pursuing a lot of these big infrastructure projects, the A5, Narrow Water.”

Ms Little-Pengelly said: “We highlighted the fact that perhaps relationships, particularly between unionism and the Taoiseach’s office have not always been good in the last number of years.

“But we look forward to building a more positive relationship, an engagement which is based with respect to that stranded approach in respect with the internal issues of Northern Ireland are those for the government of Northern Ireland and for the United Kingdom.

“But of course there are areas of mutual interest where we can work together. Those are set out in terms of the areas of co-operation.

“But there will be other areas where we will want to engage and the best way to do that is with that respect and also in building those positive relationships.

“The Republic of Ireland is our closest neighbour and of course we want to be good neighbours and have those positive working relationships.”

Mr Varadkar was often portrayed within sections of the unionist community as a divisive figure during the Brexit process, amid claims his drive to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland ultimately led to the EU and UK agreeing trading arrangements that created economic barriers between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

Speaking after today’s meeting, Mr Harris said: “It has been a really good engagement.

“I was eager to get here in the early stages of my tenure as Taoiseach because we now have institutions back up and running in the north.

“I am very grateful to the first minister (Michelle O’Neill) and deputy first minister (Emma Little-Pengelly) for the incredible leadership they are showing in the political environment in terms of trying to deliver for people and I’m extraordinarily pleased the Irish Government is in a position to work, where appropriate, on a range of issues.

“I think we have an impressive list of areas where we are now actively co-operating and collaborating in.”

Mr Harris also addressed a demonstration that was held outside his house last night, saying people’s families and homes “should be out of bounds”.

He said: “I don’t want to say too much about this and I don’t like describing those sorts of things as protest.

“I’ve a very clear view in relation to this. Whether it’s me, whether it’s an opposition politician, whether it’s anybody, I always think people’s families and people’s homes should be out of bounds.

“It was bed time for my kids last night when this situation arose. I don’t think it’s appropriate.”

Ms O’Neill said: “It is totally inappropriate. The Taoiseach has two young kids and I think your home should be your sanctity and I don’t think there should be any tolerance for that type of attack on someone’s home.”

Mr Harris said there was a “need for a sense of calm” following a diplomatic row with the UK over immigration.

Tensions between London and Dublin have increased in recent days after Ireland’s justice minister claimed there had been an upsurge in asylum seekers crossing the border following the passing of the UK’s Safety of Rwanda Act.

Mr Harris said: “After the week that has been there is a need for a sense of calm here, there is need for a bit of a deep breath.

“We have a common travel area between the two islands, that is a common travel area that is in place for a very long time when both countries were in the European Union and it is still in place now when one country is within the European Union and one isn’t.

“I am determined to work as Taoiseach constructively to make sure that the common travel area is protected, the common travel area is never abused.

“There is a range of measures we need to take on an Irish level in terms of improving our migration systems.”

Mr Harris said people in Ireland wanted to know that there a “fair and firm” system was in place to manage immigration.

He said: “Migration and immigration is a good thing.

“I think it is really important that we say that and that we don’t cede that ground or create a vacuum for others to exploit.

“Having said that people in Ireland, and I would imagine people in most countries want to know that there are rules in place, want to know that the rules are enforced.

“They want to know the system is fair, it is firm, that it helps those who are entitled to help and that if somebody comes to our country, goes through a processing system and isn’t entitled to be there, that that person is asked to leave at the first instance and made to leave if they don’t.”

Mr Harris also said laws need to be upheld after the dismantling of a makeshift migrant camp in Dublin on Wednesday.

He said: “I think it is important to agree at the outset that makeshift encampments on public roads and footpaths are never the solution and aren’t legal either. There are laws in our land and they need to be upheld.

“It is also not in the interests of the people who are sleeping in those tents, people who didn’t have access to proper sanitation.

“We did provide 290 people from Mount Street, and those who appeared in Mount Street that day with accommodation - that is shelter, access to accommodation, food and with a much better scenario than had been allowed to develop on Mount Street.

“I am very comfortable with the position that we took and I believe it was necessary in relation to that. People did turn up at the International Protection Office yesterday and there wasn’t accommodation for all people.

“Ipas, the accommodation service, does have contacts for all those people and is working to try to provide accommodation solutions for those people.”