Northern Ireland

Calls for Stormont Assembly return dominate Hilary Benn’s visit

Shadow secretary of state for Northern Ireland Hilary Benn (Brian Lawless/PA)
Shadow secretary of state for Northern Ireland Hilary Benn (Brian Lawless/PA)

Calls for the restoration of the Stormont Assembly dominated the first of shadow secretary of state Hilary Benn’s discussions with political parties in Northern Ireland.

The Labour veteran is taking part in his first visit to the region since being appointed as shadow secretary of state last month.

He is meeting the main political parties at Parliament Buildings across the day.

The visit comes as the Stormont Assembly remains collapsed amid DUP protest action against internal UK trade barriers created by Brexit’s Northern Ireland Protocol.

Sinn Fein North Belfast MP John Finucane speaks to media at Parliament Buildings in Stormont following a meeting with shadow Secretary of State Hilary Benn (Sinn Fein/PA)

The party says the framework deal struck by the EU and the UK to reform the protocol does not sufficiently address its concerns and has made clear it will not accept a return to devolution until the Government provides further assurances, by way of legislation, over Northern Ireland’s place in the UK internal market.

Talks between the DUP and the Government have been ongoing over the summer.

One of the main parts of the framework – the green/red lane system for the movement of goods – became operational at Northern Ireland ports on Sunday.

Mr Benn’s first meeting on Tuesday was with Sinn Fein vice-president Michelle O’Neill and North Belfast MP John Finucane.

Speaking to media after the meeting, Mr Finucane said they had a “very positive and constructive meeting”.

“Top of the agenda in our message to him was the need to restore the assembly, to restore the executive, to have ministers in place at the job they were elected to do over a year ago,” he said.

“We are in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis, we have a health service that demands action to begin to tackle the crisis in our waiting lists and the many other problems in our public services.

“But we were also keen to stress that we don’t want to miss the opportunities of the economic potential that we now have here. We also have a very significant and sizeable delegation coming from America in a couple of weeks led by the US president’s special envoy Joe Kennedy.

Stormont Assembly
US special envoy to Northern Ireland for economic affairs Joe Kennedy (Niall Carson/PA)

Mr Finucane added: “People voted in a historic election over 18 months ago now, and the very least that they deserve is to have ministers in place, doing the job they should be doing.

“I don’t think there is any excuse for the DUP to be remaining out of government … they need to get back in and respect the outcome of last year’s election without delay.”

On Monday Mr Benn met staff from the Wave Trauma Centre, which supports Troubles victims and relatives of those bereaved, as well as making a visit to Queen’s University Belfast.

Mr Finucane said the government’s controversial new Legacy Act was also discussed during his party’s meeting with Mr Benn.