The Taoiseach and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak have met the new Stormont ministers ahead of their first executive meeting, with Leo Varadkar saying the revived institutions is a signal the Good Friday Agreement is “functioning again”.
The pair arrived in Belfast on Monday as ministers prepared to meet, with Mr Sunak insisting his government’s deal with the DUP to restore power-sharing had secured the north’s place in the UK.
The DUP has claimed the deal addresses trading issues between the north and Britain, and removes the Northern Ireland Protocol’s Irish Sea border.
Asked on Monday if the deal protected the north from future trade divergence, Mr Sunak said: “We have worked very hard and, I believe, succeeded in protecting Northern Ireland’s place in our union and building on what we achieved with the Windsor Framework to ensure the smooth flow of trade within the United Kingdom.”
“I am very confident on the basis of all the meetings I have had this morning and yesterday, people are looking forward, they are not looking backwards.”
Mr Varadkar greeted the new first and deputy first ministers Michelle O’Neill and Emma Little-Pengelly with kisses on each cheek as they arrived at Stormont.
With the north having its first republican first minister in Sinn Féin’s Ms O’Neill, Mr Varadkar was asked by reporters if he believed Irish reunification was within reach, replying the question was “not for today”.
“I think today is really about marking the fact that the Good Friday Agreement, which we voted for in big numbers north and south, is now functioning again,” he said.
The taoiseach said there were “various times over the past year or two I didn’t think this day would happen”.
“It’s great that the institutions are back up and running again, we want the Executive to be a success and to last, and keen to help in any way we can but not to interfere, but definitely to help, and keen to see the North South Ministerial Council up and running again as soon as possible, and the British Irish Council as well of course,” he said.
Mr Varadkar insisted the Irish government was willing to help the north with further financial support on top of the UK Treasury’s £3.3 billion funding package.
He said more funding pledges through the Republic’s Shared Island Initiative would be forthcoming.
Ms O’Neill said the executive needed more money to deliver good public services.
“The offer that has been put on the table sounds good on the face of it, but whenever you break it down into the details there’s a lot more to be done here,” she told reporters.
“If we’re going to be successful politically, we need to also have the resources to deliver good public services.”
In a statement welcoming the executive’s restoration US President Joe Biden said: “I look forward to seeing the renewed stability of a power-sharing government that strengthens the peace dividend, restores public services, and continues building on the immense progress of the last decades.”
He added: “This is an important step, and I am confident that through consistent dialogue and ongoing cooperation with both the United Kingdom and Ireland, Stormont’s restoration will facilitate the critical north-south and east-west relations vital to the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.”
Meanwhile, it emerged on Monday that UUP leader Doug Beattie had wanted his party to go into opposition alongside the SDLP in the Assembly, before Robin Swann was nominated as health minister.
He told BBC Radio Ulster’s Nolan Show: “There were members of my party, elected members of my party, who thought that it would be better if we went into opposition.
“It just so happens, I was one of them, and that wasn’t opposition for opposition sake. I think opposition creates good government.”
Nominating a minister had been opposed over the weekend by UUP MLA for East Belfast, Andy Allen.
Mr Swann had previously been announced as the UUP Westminster candidate for South Antrim, and speaking later on the Radio Ulster’s Talkback show, Mr Beattie suggested he may withdraw Mr Swann as a candidate ahead of this year’s general election.