The shadow Northern Ireland Secretary has urged the “redoubling” of efforts to resurrect the powersharing Stormont Assembly.
Hilary Benn said he was “listening and learning”, accompanied by shadow Northern Ireland minister Fleur Anderson, during his first official visit to the region since his appointment by Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer last month.
The Government’s controversial Legacy Act, as well as the resurrection of Stormont and Brexit arrangements, were prioritised by the pair during a series of visits.
These included meeting Troubles victims and bereaved relatives at the Wave Trauma Centre, talks with Sir Declan Morgan and Peter Sheridan of the new Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery, and a visit to Belfast Port.
On Tuesday, they met the five main political parties in Northern Ireland, for what Mr Benn described as “constructive discussions”.
The Stormont Assembly has been collapsed amid DUP protest action against internal UK trade barriers created by Brexit’s Northern Ireland Protocol.
The party says the framework deal struck by the EU and the UK to reform the protocol does not sufficiently address its concerns and has made clear it will not accept a return to devolution until the Government provides further assurances, by way of legislation, over Northern Ireland’s place in the UK internal market.
Talks between the DUP and the UK government have been ongoing over the summer.
One of the main parts of the framework – the green/red lane system for the movement of goods – became operational at Northern Ireland ports on Sunday.
Mr Benn told media at Stormont: “I am here to listen and to learn and to seek the trust and confidence of all communities in Northern Ireland to try to be an honest broker.
“What is clear to everybody, because Northern Ireland has been without a government for some time now, is that we need to get the institutions here back up and running again, and now is the time for all of us to redouble our efforts to bring that about so that we can have Stormont functioning, we can have the Northern Ireland economy prospering as we seek peace, prosperity and progress for the people of Northern Ireland, to create jobs, to get new investment in and to deliver improved public services, because there are so many tasks that the Assembly and Executive will have to address when they are re established.
“And I hope that day will come very soon.”
Mr Benn’s first meeting on Tuesday was with Sinn Féin vice-president Michelle O’Neill and North Belfast MP John Finucane.
Mr Finucane said they pressed the need to restore the assembly, the executive and have ministers in place.
He said: “We are in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis, we have a health service that demands action to begin to tackle the crisis in our waiting lists and the many other problems in our public services.
“But we were also keen to stress that we don’t want to miss the opportunities of the economic potential that we now have here. We also have a very significant and sizeable delegation coming from America in a couple of weeks led by the US president’s special envoy Joe Kennedy.”
Mr Finucane added: “I don’t think there is any excuse for the DUP to be remaining out of government ... they need to get back in and respect the outcome of last year’s election without delay.”
However, DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson defended his position, saying he is seeking a solution.
“I want to find a solution. I’m not planning for failure, I’m planning to get this done because we want to see Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom properly protected and respected in UK law, and we want to see a functioning Stormont,” he said.
Alliance leader Naomi Long praised Mr Benn for his level of engagement with, and knowledge of, issues in Northern Ireland.
She said the focus of their conversation was around efforts to resurrect the Stormont Assembly.
“This current situation where we have no Assembly, no devolution is just not a sustainable position for Northern Ireland to be in, and it is not good for the people who we represent, who are languishing on waiting lists, who are struggling with their finances, who can’t access childcare and who are facing all of the multiple demands and challenges that everyone else faces but doing it without the support of the people they elected to take on these challenges on their behalf,” she said.
UUP leader Doug Beattie hailed a “good meeting” with Mr Benn.
“We talked a lot about how do we get Stormont up and running again, we talked a lot about the Windsor Framework, the red and the green lanes, the building of trust between the EU, closer alignment, and then we went on to talk about legacy, and he is certainly over the detail of the new legacy act,” he said.
“He talked about what he could do if there was a Labour government and what his position would be in regards to that legacy act,” he added. - PA