Restoring powersharing in Northern Ireland is the “right thing” to do for the future of the Union, Rishi Sunak has insisted.
The Prime Minister urged the region’s political leaders to fulfil the promise of the Good Friday Agreement and return to devolved government as he gave the closing address at a landmark conference marking the 25th anniversary of the peace accord that largely ended the Troubles.
During his speech at Queen’s University in Belfast, Mr Sunak made a direct appeal to unionists blocking the institutions in Belfast.
The DUP is using a veto contained within the powersharing structures to prevent the operation of devolution in protest at post-Brexit trading arrangements the party contends has weakened Northern Ireland’s place within the UK.
Mr Sunak insists the new Windsor Framework deal he recently struck with the EU had addressed the DUP concerns over sovereignty and trade.
Addressing unionist political representatives during his speech, Mr Sunak said: “I urge you to work with us to get Stormont up and running again.
“That’s the right thing to do in its own terms. I’m convinced it’s also the right thing to do for our union.
“Now, I’m a proud unionist. We passionately believe that Northern Ireland is stronger within the United Kingdom, and the United Kingdom is stronger with Northern Ireland within it.
“But we must also build support beyond those of us who already identify as unionists. To do that, we have to show that devolved government within the United Kingdom works for Northern Ireland.
“The fact that the institutions have been down for nine of the last 25 years should be a source of profound concern.
“Over the long term that will not bolster the cause of unionism – I believe that deeply.
“So, we need to get the institutions up and running – and keep them up and running.”
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson responded later saying the “damaged foundations” of devolved government must have unionist as well as nationalist support for sustainable devolved government.
“We stand ready to work with the Prime Minister and his Government to ensure that stable devolution is delivered through sustainable and balanced outcomes that have solid foundations based on the support of unionists as well as nationalists.
“We must get the foundations right. Short-term fixes will lead to short-term devolution and will do a disservice to those trying to make the institutions work.
“We are in the business of finishing the job and ensuring that NI’s position within the Union is not continually undermined.
“Northern Ireland will only ever move forward if we all move forward together.”
The prime minister opened his speech by acknowledging that it was “far from perfect” to be marking the anniversary at a time when Stormont is in abeyance.
“But my argument today is this – the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement remains the best and only foundation for peace and prosperity,” he said.
His remarks came after Irish premier Leo Varadkar and former US President Bill Clinton also urged a return to devolution as they addressed the conference.
The final day of the conference at Queen’s University also heard from European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, European Council President Charles Michel and former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton.
During his speech, Mr Sunak said he would bring the “full force and power” of the UK Government to make Northern Ireland an economic and investment hub.
One of the loudest rounds of applause came when the Prime Minister expressed hope that in 25 years integrated education in Northern Ireland would be the “norm, rather than the exception”.
Referring to the powersharing impasse, Mr Clinton said it was time to “get this show on the road”.
He said the roadblock Brexit had posed for Northern Ireland’s political and economic future had been “dramatically mitigated”.
“The agreement was never supposed to be used to make sure there could be no self-government,” he said.
“We know what the votes were at the last election, we can add them up, the allocation of seats in the parliamentary body, and it is time to get this show on the road.”
Taoiseach Mr Varadkar encouraged Northern Ireland’s leaders to take the initiative.
“We need that kind of leadership still,” he said.
He added: “It is incumbent on Northern Ireland’s political leaders today to take the initiative. To see past ‘the shadow of the mountain behind’.
“To seize control of their history, to seize control of their destiny and to lead their people into the future, and we as co-guarantors of the agreement will be here to help, every step of the way.”
European Commission president Ms von der Leyen used her speech to hail improving relations with the UK as she described the recent deal on post-Brexit trade as a “new beginning for old friends”.
“But the ultimate choice lies with you, the people of Northern Ireland, to shape your history and that of the next generation.
“The gateway to a bright future is open, all you need to do is walk through it.”
Mrs Clinton, who is chancellor of Queen’s University, described the conference as “extraordinary”.
The event saw political leaders fly in from across the world, including Mr Clinton, ex-prime minister Sir Tony Blair, former Irish premier Bertie Ahern and European Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic.