Harris holds first call with Sunak as Taoiseach but Troubles Legacy Act not discussed

Leaders of both countries hold ‘very good call’ before Taoiseach spoke to North’s First Minister and Deputy First Minister

Taoiseach Simon Harris and British prime minister Rishi Sunak (right). Photographs: Damien Storan/PA, Andy Rain/EPA
composite picture collage side by side

Taoiseach Simon Harris and British prime minister Rishi Sunak discussed Northern Ireland but not the UK government’s controversial Legacy Act in their first phone call since the new Fine Gael leader took office.

The Government is challenging the British legislation in the European Court of Human Rights.

The Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Act 2023 will also halt future civil cases and legacy inquests.

The UK government’s laws are opposed by many victims groups in Northern Ireland and all the main Stormont parties.

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A Government spokesman confirmed that Mr Harris did not raise the Legacy Act with Mr Sunak saying it is a matter before the courts and that there will be a “more substantive bilateral meeting in person” in the future.

Asked if the pair discussed the upheaval in the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) the spokesman said “not in any great depth”.

Jeffrey Donaldson resigned as DUP leader last month after being charged with sexual offences. It is understood that he intends to contest the allegations strenuously.

The Government spokesman said Mr Harris and Mr Sunak “didn’t get into any matters that are before the courts”.

East Belfast MP Gavin Robinson has been appointed as the DUP’s interim leader.

Mr Sunak is said to have asked Mr Harris for an update on the North South Ministerial Council (NSMC) which met on Monday and which the new Taoiseach attended while he was still Minister for Higher Education.

It was the first meeting of the NSMC in years as the engagements had been stopped during the collapse in powersharing due to the DUP’s concerns over post-Brexit trading arrangements.

The Government spokesman said: “Prime minister Sunak was clear that we have the platform now with the progress that’s been made on Brexit and Stormont he wanted to use it.”

The spokesman said the two leaders discussed the situation in the Middle East and both agreed that a ceasefire is needed in Gaza along with access for humanitarian aid.

Mr Sunak congratulated Mr Harris on his election as Taoiseach and the 20-minute conversation was described as “a very good call”.

The Government later confirmed that Mr Harris also spoke by phone with First Minister Michelle O’Neill and Deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly.

A statement said: “The Taoiseach spoke of the importance he attaches to his role as a co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement, including today the 26th anniversary of its signing.

“With this week’s re-establishment of the North South Ministerial Council, the Taoiseach and the First Minister and Deputy First Minister looked forward to renewed, positive North-South engagement in the months ahead,” it added.

Mr Harris also spoke by phone with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

A Government statement said they “discussed the current situation on the ground in Ukraine as the country continues to resist Russian aggression” and “what more Ireland, the EU and wider global community can do to support Ukraine and President Zelenskiy’s peace plan”.

After the call Mr Harris said: “I felt that it was important that in my first full day as Taoiseach I spoke with President Zelenskiy

“I took the opportunity to reassure him of Ireland’s unwavering support of Ukraine and its brave people as they continue to defend their country against the imperialist aggression of President Putin and to restore their sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

Mr Harris added: “Russia is posing a grave threat to all of Europe and the people of Ukraine are not only fighting for their freedom but are also defending our shared values as Europeans.”

He said he told Mr Zelenskiy that Ireland “will continue to assist his country in any way we can and for as long as it takes. Russia cannot and must not prevail”.

Mr Harris said the two leaders “welcomed the recent decision by the European Council to open EU accession negations with Ukraine and I offered any assistance Ireland can provide in supporting their efforts to achieve EU membership as soon as possible”.

He also said he told the Ukrainian president that will advocate for support for Ukraine’s peace plan with “global partners” with whom Ireland has a close relationship, including African countries.

Mr Harris said he stressed that Ireland will continue to work both in the EU and the UN “to hold Russia accountable, including through supporting further sanctions against Russia”.

He said: “I expressed my pride in the Irish people and the warm welcome they have extended to over 105,000 Ukrainians fleeing the war and thanked them for the valuable contribution they are making to Irish society. We will continue to offer refuge to those seeking safety from this devastating conflict.”

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