New PM Starmer meets Northern Ireland’s leaders during UK tour

Northern Ireland’s parties expect Starmer to main parties expect Starmer to bring ‘greater stability and closer engagement’ with Belfast [Getty/file photo]

Keir Starmer made his first visit as UK prime minister to Northern Ireland on Monday, with hopes high on both sides of the political divide that relations will improve after years of Brexit turmoil.

Starmer, whose centre-left Labour party won last week’s UK general election, briefly met the leaders of Northern Ireland’s power-sharing executive at the Stormont parliament buildings early on Monday.

He held talks with First Minister Michelle O’Neill, of the pro-Irish unity Sinn Fein party, and deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly, of the pro-British Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), as he continues a whistlestop tour of the UK.

The Labour leader was due in Cardiff later on Monday, where he will meet party allies who head the devolved administration there.

In Northern Ireland, both main parties expect Starmer to bring greater stability and closer engagement, as well as patch up relations with Dublin.

“There’s cautious optimism about the new government across the board, but for different reasons,” James Pow, a politics lecturer at Queen’s University Belfast, told AFP.

At last Thursday’s election, Sinn Fein held on to its seven seats to become the largest Northern Ireland party in the UK parliament in London.

It overtook its main DUP rival, which lost three of its eight seats, two of them to rival unionist parties.

‘Reset and strengthen’

Analysts see the result as allowing Sinn Fein, which does not take up its seats in the House of Commons because it opposes British sovereignty in Northern Ireland, to claim continued momentum towards an eventual referendum, or “border poll”, on Irish unity.

The party, the former political wing of the paramilitary IRA during the Troubles – the three-decade sectarian conflict over British rule in Northern Ireland – is also the largest at council level and in the devolved Northern Ireland assembly.

On Friday, Sinn Fein’s leader Mary Lou McDonald urged the new Labour government to embrace “impartiality” and accept the right for constitutional change.

But Pow said “the fundamentals haven’t changed”, pointing to roughly equal combined vote share at the election between nationalist and unionist parties.

Starmer and his newly appointed Northern Ireland secretary, Hilary Benn, “won’t feel forced to put a border poll on the agenda, at most some pressure to outline procedural criteria for a poll to take place”.

Ireland’s prime minister Simon Harris has warmly welcomed Starmer’s win and already accepted an invitation to visit Downing Street on July 17.

Both he and Starmer are determined to “reset and strengthen” bilateral relations, Harris said.

Pro-UK unionists have historically allied with the UK Conservative party and been wary of Labour, but few are shedding any tears over the Conservatives’ defeat last week after 14 years in power.

Starmer “is somebody we have a good relationship with”, said DUP leader Gavin Robinson, calling Labour’s win an “extraordinary” outcome.

‘No wriggle room’

Post-Brexit trading rules agreed to by the DUP are seen by some unionists as erecting a de facto “sea border” between the British mainland and the province, and undermining Northern Ireland’s place in the wider UK.

Among unionists there is “hope that Starmer might prioritise tighter alignment with the EU, which could in turn mitigate the impact of the sea border, if not remove it,” Pow said.

One of the few concrete pledges related to Northern Ireland in Labour’s manifesto was the scrapping of a controversial “Legacy Act” that prompted Dublin to sue London at the European Court of Human Rights.

The law, which came into effect in May, halted inquests into Troubles-era crimes, including many that allegedly involved British security forces, and granted conditional immunity to perpetrators.

“There’s no wriggle room on that, Labour has to remove it,” Jon Tonge, a politics professor at Liverpool University, told AFP.

Starmer, a former police human rights advisor in Northern Ireland, “represents stability and a genuine desire to bring harmony” to the UK-Ireland and UK-EU relationships, in contrast to his Conservative predecessors, Belfast-based commentator Alex Kane said.

The Anglo-Irish relationship “not only deteriorated but almost reached total breakdown” during the fractious Brexit negotiations with the European Union, as well as over the Troubles legacy issue, he added.

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