Coronavirus: PM visiting NI to discuss Covid-19 response

Boris Johnson is meeting Arlene Foster and Michelle O'NeillImage copyright
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Boris Johnson with Michelle O’Neill and Arlene Foster at Hillsborough Castle

Boris Johnson has arrived in Northern Ireland for meetings with Stormont’s political leaders and Taoiseach (Irish PM) Micheál Martin.

It is the prime minister’s first trip to Northern Ireland since January, when a deal was struck to restore power-sharing.

He is meeting First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill.

They will discuss how Westminster and Stormont have tackled Covid-19.

Ahead of the trip, Mr Johnson said he recognised that “close working” had helped during the pandemic.

“I cannot overstate how important the close co-operation that we have seen between central and devolved government will continue to be to this,” he added.

“Together, we will make sure Northern Ireland is ready to take full advantage of the many opportunities that lie ahead and that no part of Northern Ireland is left behind.”

Trade negotiations

The prime minister is also set to hold his first face-to-face meeting with Micheál Martin, since the Fianna Fáil leader became taoiseach in June.

The two leaders are expected to discuss the shared fight against coronavirus and work on a sustainable economic recovery, as well as the UK’s ongoing negotiations with the EU to reach a trade deal, said Downing Street.

A statement from the Irish government said the meeting at Hillsborough Castle will be “an opportunity for discussion of a number of issues of mutual concern”.

“Covid-19 will top the agenda and the two leaders are expected to discuss their respective experiences of managing the virus and dealing with its economic and societal impact,” it said.

“They will also discuss Brexit, including the continuing negotiations between the UK and the EU, with less than six months to the end of the transition period.”

The transition period is due to end on 1 January and a new “trade border” will begin operating between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

Last week, Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove set out details of £355m in funding for a system to ease trade going from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.

‘Celebrate Northern Ireland’

During his trip to Northern Ireland, Mr Johnson will also announce plans to mark Northern Ireland’s centenary year in 2021.

He is expected to say that a centenary forum and historical advisory panel will be established to work alongside the government to mark 100 years since the creation of Northern Ireland.

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Boris Johnson was last in Northern Ireland in January, when a deal was struck to restore power-sharing

The prime minister said it was “important” to celebrate Northern Ireland’s people, culture and traditions, “along with its vital contribution to the United Kingdom”.

Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said she warned Mr Johnson that there was “nothing to celebrate” with next year’s centenary.

Speaking after meeting the prime minister, the Sinn Féin vice-president said it should be marked with a “reflective and honest” conversation about partition and its “failures”.

“I was very clear in speaking to Boris Johnson that there isn’t anything to celebrate for the republican or nationalist community when it comes to partition.

“The north was built on sectarianism, on gerrymandering, on an inbuilt unionist majority.”

However, the DUP MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said the centenary would be marked in an inclusive way.

“If we’re going to build a shared future in Northern Ireland, we need to have an understanding of our shared history,” he said.

“If anyone denies the existence of Northern Ireland, then they deny history itself.”

Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis had earlier welcomed the first stage of the government’s centenary plans.

“This is a fantastic opportunity for people right across the UK to celebrate Northern Ireland and its integral place within our union,” he said.

“The establishment of a centenary forum and centenary historical advisory panel will offer us the opportunity to work with a broad spectrum of people, including those from across the political parties, business, tourism and the voluntary and community sectors, to deliver an ambitious and exciting programme of events to mark this significant national anniversary for the UK.”

The government will use the centenary next year to “promote Northern Ireland on the world stage”, pledged Mr Lewis.


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