Northern Ireland

Prime Minister and Taoiseach play down suggestion of strains in Anglo-Irish relationship

Leo Varadkar and Rishi Sunak met, but did not appear in public together to mark the return of devolved government to Northern Ireland.

European Political Community summit
European Political Community summit Prime Minister Rishi Sunak holding a bilateral meeting with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar during the European Political Community summit in Granada, Spain (Manu Fernandez/PA)

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar have played down suggestions of tensions between the two governments after they did not appear together in public to mark the return of powersharing to Northern Ireland.

While the two leaders did meet privately, they held separate engagements with Stormont’s political leaders.

Mr Varadkar said the day was about progress in Northern Ireland, rather than the two premiers, while Mr Sunak said Ireland would remain a “close and valued” partner of the UK.

Speculation over a rift in the Anglo-Irish relationship has increased since Dublin launched an interstate legal challenge against the UK Government’s contentious legislation to address the legacy of the Northern Ireland Troubles.

Laws enacted by the UK Government strive to provide a limited form of immunity to those accused of Troubles-related offences.

The move has faced staunch criticism and is opposed by many victims’ groups in Northern Ireland and all the main Stormont parties.

Last week, Mr Sunak used a call with the Irish premier to confront his counterpart about the UK’s “disappointment” over the legal challenge.

He repeated those sentiments on Monday, saying he “deeply regretted” the move.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said focus should be on the return of the Stormont Executive
Stormont Assembly Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said focus should be on the return of the Stormont Executive (Oliver McVeigh/PA)

Mr Varadkar said he had had a “very good meeting” with Mr Sunak at Stormont.

He said: “There’s a long standing tradition since the Good Friday Agreement was signed that the Taoiseach would attend events like this.

“This isn’t about us, this is about Northern Ireland.

“It’s about the major political parties here coming together, forming an executive working together on the day to day issues that people across the province are concerned about.

“So it isn’t really about me or the Prime Minister.

“It’s about powersharing here in Northern Ireland, which is so important.

“So I think the focus will be on them rather than us.”

Asked why he had not appeared in public alongside Mr Varadkar, the Prime Minister said: “Ireland is always going to be a close and valued partner and friend of the United Kingdom. That’s always been the case and will remain the case.

“Whilst we deeply regret the decision that the Irish Government made on legacy, we disagree with it, but it is important we continue to co-operate where we can.

“I met the Taoiseach today, I spoke to him last week.

“I also was the first prime minister to attend the British-Irish Council in over a decade.

“I regularly speak to him and I also have an enormous amount of respect for all strands of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.”

Mr Sunak added: “I also congratulated him on Ireland’s rugby victory while I was at it.”

Following her meeting with the Taoiseach, the DUP’s Emma Little-Pengelly said she looked forward to building a relationship Mr Varadkar based on “mutual respect”.

She added: “It makes sense for us to have a constructive relationship – we haven’t always had in the past”.