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Rishi Sunak shook hands with Northern Ireland‘s republican First Minister today as he sealed the deal on a return to powersharing government amid a row over her demand for an Irish unity vote.

The PM and Sinn Fein‘s Michelle O’Neill were all smiles as they met at Stormont this morning.

But behind the scenes a row is brewing over the vow by Mrs O’Neil – the first nationalist to hold the post – to demand a referendum on uniting Ireland during their talks today.

Ministers have already dismissed the prospect, insisting the conditions for holding a poll in the province are ‘definitely not met’. 

And the DUP accused Ms O’Neill of focusing on ‘divisive’ issues rather than improving the lot of the people. 

The row could mar celebrations after powersharing was finally restored at Stormont at the weekend, following a deal with the unionists on post-Brexit trading rules. 

Mr Sunak headed to Belfast last night and will also meet other NI party leaders and Irish premier Leo Varadkar this morning.

Sunak seals the powersharing deal amid Irish unity row: historic moment PM shakes hands with new Sinn Fein First Minister Michelle O’Neill ahead of showdown over republican’s demand for referendum within a decade

The Sinn Fein politician, the first republican to take the top job at Stormont, has vowed to demand a referendum on uniting Ireland when she meets the PM later.

Rishi Sunak is facing a showdown with new Northern Ireland First Minister Michelle O'Neill today as he visits Belfast (pictured talking to Air Ambulance staff in Lisburn last night)

Rishi Sunak is facing a showdown with new Northern Ireland First Minister Michelle O’Neill today as he visits Belfast (pictured talking to Air Ambulance staff in Lisburn last night)

The DUP accused Ms O'Neill of focusing on 'divisive' issues rather than improving the lot of the people.

The DUP accused Ms O’Neill of focusing on ‘divisive’ issues rather than improving the lot of the people.

During the talks, it is understood the Sinn Fein leaders objected to elements of the recent UK deal with the DUP amid concerns it adopted a pro-Union approach to issues such as a border poll and the development of an all-island economy.

The republican party is understood to have made clear its intent to drive an all-island economy through the economy and finance departments it now holds in the newly-formed ministerial Executive in Belfast.

They also are believed to have stressed the requirement for the UK Government to remain impartial in relation to the calling of any future referendum on Northern Ireland’s constitutional future.

The Israel-Hamas conflict was also spoken about, with Ms McDonald understood to have stressed the urgent need for a ceasefire and the need for international rule to be upheld in the region.

With elections due in Ireland this year, there is a real possibility that republicans could run governments on both sides of the border.

The Executive, headed by Ms O’Neill with the DUP’s Emma Little-Pengelly serving as deputy First Minister, will hold its first meeting today as it begins the task of trying to manage Northern Ireland’s strained finances.

The row could mar celebrations after powersharing was finally restored at Stormont at the weekend, following a deal with the unionists on post-Brexit trading rules

The row could mar celebrations after powersharing was finally restored at Stormont at the weekend, following a deal with the unionists on post-Brexit trading rules

The institutions were restored after a deal between Mr Sunak’s Government and the DUP to address unionist concerns over post-Brexit trading arrangements, which included passing new legislation at Westminster.

The UK Government’s £3.3billion funding offer is aimed at stabilising finances in the region, and settling public sector pay claims.

The Executive will press Mr Sunak for more funding but he has described the package as ‘a generous and fair settlement’.

Mr Heaton-Harris rejected claims by Stormont ministers that better funding is needed from the UK Government as powersharing returns.

The Cabinet minister insisted the £3.3billion package offered by Westminster is ‘ample’ for the Executive to ‘get on with the job’.

On the calls for a referendum, Mr Heaton-Harris told LBC: ‘I really don’t think that’s going to happen but as Secretary of State I am the person responsible in Government to check whether the conditions for that have been met.

‘They’re definitely not met at this point in time, and I would suggest that actually top of the in-tray for an incoming Executive has to be things like public sector pay, the health service, which needs massive transformation here, funding on education and a whole host of other things that actually all people in Northern Ireland from both communities truly care about.’

He 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.

Mr Heaton-Harris is joining Rishi Sunak and Irish premier Leo Varadkar in Belfast on Monday to mark the restoration of devolved government.

But the newly-formed Executive has already written to the Prime Minister calling for urgent discussions on long-term funding stability to deliver public services.

Asked about claims that the current funding arrangement will not provide the basis for the Executive to deliver sustainable public services, the Northern Ireland Secretary told BBC Breakfast: ‘I don’t believe that is the case. I think Stormont has fantastic, strong foundations now and it will survive, it will be sustainable.’

He added: ‘There is a thing, I think, about choices. You’re going into politics, you have to make choices on these sorts of things.

‘Those choices haven’t been made for a long time out here, and I believe the new set of ministers are completely capable of running their public finances perfectly well with the fair and generous funding package we’ve given them.

Ms O'Neill (left) has been installed as First Minister, while the DUP's Emma Little-Pengelly (right) is deputy

Ms O’Neill (left) has been installed as First Minister, while the DUP’s Emma Little-Pengelly (right) is deputy 

‘There’s a £3.3billion package available to ministers on day one here to get on with the job of sorting out Northern Ireland public sector pay, health services and a whole host of other things, and I’d say that’s ample for the time being.’

Mr Sunak and Mr Varadkar will meet each other, as well as the leaders of the new powersharing Executive which was formed on Saturday, ending two years of political stalemate.

Ms Little-Pengelly said Stormont ministers will be ‘speaking with one voice’ in their talks with the Prime Minister.

She added: ‘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.

‘We are ready to engage with the Government and get down to the work of putting our finances on a sound footing; however, we will also be seeking to ensure the UK Government provides sufficient funding in a package to fulfil its promises on public sector pay.’

The women leading Sinn Fein to power in Ireland 

Sinn Fein is led by two women who may hold power north and south of the border in years to come. 

Michelle O’Neill will become Northern Ireland’s first republican first minister if the deal agreed by the DUP is ratified, in a momentous moment for the country. 

And party president Mary Lou McDonald is in poll position to take power in Ireland in an election expected next year.

SF has had the joint highest number of seats in the Dail in the 2020 election but were kept from power by a coalition of Fine Gael and Fianna Fail.

McDonald’s party is currently leading in the polls, though they are nine points below their peak popularity in 2020.

Northern Ireland’s First Minister-elect Mrs O’Neill was brought up in one of the most notorious battlegrounds of the Troubles. 

And the family of the deputy leader of Sinn Fein were deeply involved in the clashes in East Tyrone.

One cousin, Tony Doris, was one of three IRA men killed in an SAS ambush in 1991, when O’Neill was 14. A second, Gareth Doris, was involved in a high explosives attack on a police base in Coalisland in 1997, only a year before the Good Friday Agreement which was to bring peace was signed. He was shot by police but survived. He was sentenced to ten years in jail but, because of the GFA, he was released in less than three.

Mrs O’Neill’s father, too, was an IRA member. He was interned at the notorious Maze Prison at the height of the Troubles, and spent time in other jails, including Crumlin Road in Belfast, Armagh and Magilligan. 

The 47-year-old was born in County Cork shortly after the height of the Troubles. She joined Sinn Fein only after the Good Friday Agreement was signed – at the time, she was 21 and married with a child – and worked for the SF MP Francie Molloy for seven years until 2005.

In in 2010 she became the first woman mayor of Dungannon and South Tyrone and served as deputy First Minister under the DUP’s Arlene Foster and Paul Givan from 2020. 

And after the 2022 election she should have become First Minister, but for the DUP collapsing power-sharing. 

And she has attempted to foster an image of moderation in the interregnum. She attracted criticism from allies and opponents when she attended both the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II and the coronation of Charles III, the later alongside Irish president Michael D Higgins.

Mary Lou McDonald was born in Dublin on May 1, 1969 and is the new president of Sinn Fein.

She was educated at Trinity College, Dublin, the University of Limerick and Dublin City University, studying English Literature, European Integration Studies and Human Resource management.

After leaving university, the politician ran for the leadership unopposed and had served as deputy leader since February 2008.

She has been a Member of Dáil Éireann, the equivalent of an MP, for Dublin Central since 2011 and had previously served as an MEP for the Dublin constituency from 2004 to 2009.

McDonald was previously a member of Fianna Fáil, another Irish republican party, although quit to join Sinn Fein in 1998. She first ran for public office back in 2002, unsuccessfully contesting the Dublin West seat, winning just eight per cent of the vote.

She married her husband Martin Lanigan in 1996 and has two children. Raised in the affluent Rathgar area, she she has two brothers and a sister.

She has previously said that she ‘completely understood and understand why people volunteered for the IRA’.

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