The Taoiseach has insisted the Irish government is willing to help Northern Ireland with further financial support as ministers in the restored Stormont Executive pressed the UK for more cash.
Leo Varadkar’s pledge came as he and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak visited Belfast to mark the return of devolution to the region.
The two premiers met for private discussions at Stormont this morning, but did not conduct any joint meetings with local politicians or joint press conferences.
The lack of a side-by-side public appearance fuelled talk of tensions in the Anglo-Irish relationship following Ireland’s move to launch a legal challenge against the UK Government’s contentious legislation to address the legacy of the Northern Ireland Troubles.
Later, Mr Sunak said the “real work starts now” as he met with Northern Ireland’s first ever nationalist First Minister, Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill, and her DUP counterpart, deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly.
The institutions were restored on Saturday after a deal between the UK Government and the DUP to address unionist concerns over post-Brexit trading arrangements, which included passing new legislation at Westminster.
The Treasury has offered a £3.3 billion funding package to support the return to powersharing.
While the Prime Minister has said the offer represents a “generous and fair settlement”, Stormont ministers have written to the Government insisting it is not enough to deliver “sustainable public services and public finances”.
Mr Varadkar highlighted that the Irish government had already invested millions of euros in projects in Northern Ireland that had a cross-border element, and he said more funding pledges through its Shared Island Initiative would be forthcoming.
The bulk of Irish investment in the region has focused on capital infrastructure projects.
The Taoiseach, addressing reporters in Parliament Buildings in Belfast, said he was confident the new administration in Belfast would last.
“I want to thank people who made today possible, to congratulate the First Minister, the deputy First Minister, the new Executive on taking up their new roles, and really pledge to do everything that we can do to help this Executive to be successful,” he said.
“There’s a lot of everyday issues that need attention here in Northern Ireland, and I know they’re going to work very hard on that. We’re keen to get north-south co-operation going again and have a meeting of the North South Ministerial Council in the next couple of weeks and focus on some of that practical co-operation that works well for everyone on the island.
“So, very keen to work with a new executive and looking forward to doing that.”
Asked by reporters if his government was prepared to offer “new” money to the region, the Taoiseach said: “Yes, we are. You know the Shared Island fund is there and we would intend to make further allocations from that over the course of this year. But we’re also very keen to co-ordinate that with the Secretary of State (Chris Heaton-Harris) and also with the Executive, now it is up and running.”
Mr Sunak said his Government’s funding deal for Northern Ireland was “significant and generous” and would focus on “long-term sustainability” as well as addressing the immediate issues.
He added: “I had very constructive meetings this morning with the Executive, with political leaders across Stormont, and it is a historic and important day for the country, because Northern Ireland’s politicians are back in charge, making decisions on behalf of their people, which is exactly how it should be.
“Now, our new deal gives them more funding and more powers than they have ever had, so they can deliver for families and businesses across Northern Ireland. And that’s what everyone’s priority is now.”
Mr Sunak also insisted that Stormont’s leaders should focus on the “day-to-day” concerns of people in Northern Ireland, rather than the prospect of a poll on reunification.
He made clear that “constitutional change” was not a priority in response to weekend comments from Ms O’Neill in which she claimed a border referendum could be held in the next 10 years.
“It is not constitutional change, it is delivering on the day-to-day things that matter to people,” the Prime Minister said.
Mr Varadkar would not be drawn on the question of reunification when asked by reporters.
Both the UK and Irish sides also moved to play down suggestions of a rift between them on Monday.
Aside from the difference of opinion on the legacy laws, Mr Varadkar was asked to respond to the suggestion of disquiet in No 10 amid claims Mr Varadkar had “muscled in” on the Prime Minister’s visit to the region to mark the re-establishment of devolution.
“I had a very good welcome and very good meeting with the Prime Minister and then a very warm welcome from the First Minister, deputy First Minister and Executive,” he replied.
“And there’s a long-standing tradition since the Good Friday Agreement was signed that the Taoiseach would attend events like this.”