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O’Neill urged to focus on public services

The Northern Ireland Secretary has said First Minister Michelle O’Neill should focus on improving public services rather than raising the issue of a ballot on reunification.

Chris Heaton-Harris has dismissed the prospect of a border poll after Ms O’Neill claimed one could be held in the next ten years.

He said the conditions for a poll were “definitely not met at this time” and played down the prospect of a referendum within a decade.

Mr Heaton-Harris said he would have to be “confident” that there was a potential majority of people in Northern Ireland “who would like to depart from their current constitutional status” for the conditions to be met.

DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson also criticised the Sinn Féin First Minister for focusing on the “divisive” issue.

“She says she wants to be a First Minister for all, well that means the unionist community,” he told Sky News.

He said the Executive must work on the basis that a majority of people in Northern Ireland support the union.

Yesterday, Ms O’Neill, the first nationalist to assume the post of First Minister, said: “I believe we are in a decade of opportunity and there are so many things that are changing.

“All the old norms, the nature of this estate, the fact that a nationalist/republican was never supposed to be First Minister.

“This all speaks to that change.”

Meanwhile, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak will be pressed to provide more funding for public services in Northern Ireland when he meets ministers of the restored Stormont Executive today.

Rishi Sunak is in Belfast for talks with the new Executive

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has also arrived at Stormont for meetings with Mr Sunak, Northern Ireland party leaders and incoming Executive ministers.

Asked for his reaction to the restoration of the institutions, he said it was “a positive day”.

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said “change is all around and must be managed” following a meeting with Mr Sunak.

In a post on X, she shared a picture of herself and Ms O’Neill meeting Mr Sunak and Mr Heaton-Harris.

All ten Stormont ministers have signed the letter to Mr Sunak saying the £3.3 billion financial package offered by the UK government to the incoming executive will not put Northern Ireland’s public services on a secure footing.

“If we are to tackle the serious problems across public services – in our hospitals and in our schools – then how we are funded needs to change and I will be strong in strongly pressing that point at today’s meeting,” said First Minister Michelle O’Neill.

Chris Heaton-Harris, Edwin Poots and Rishi Sunak tour the Assembly Chamber at Parliament Buildings

The letter says a new funding model proposed for Northern Ireland will “trap Executive funding below need” once the extra money provided by the UK for the restored executive runs out.

It also says the £584m provided to address public sector pay is not recurrent and there remains a gap of around £100m to address all the pay demands and bring Northern Ireland public sector pay broadly into line with the rest of the UK.

The ministers said the existing shortfall and the requirement to honour the pay agreements annually would leave the Executive forced to make “damaging cuts to public services of the order of hundreds of millions of pounds next financial year and every financial year in order to meet growing pay pressures”.

Rishi Sunak will meet politicians in Stormont

The letter also asks for talks about UK support for large scale capital projects.

Deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly said Mr Sunak would hear the new executive speaking with “one voice”.

“We will be saying that the people of Northern Ireland deserve better public services and that we need to work together – the executive and the government – to deliver long term fiscal stability,” she said.

Additional reporting PA

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