Rishi Sunak has issued his dire warning to DUP leaders over their refusal to restore power-sharing arrangements in Northern Ireland – insisting the Stormont boycott would harm the cause of unionism.
In a speech at Queen’s University in Belfast, the Prime Minister called on the DUP to accept the “breakthrough” of its post-Brexit compromise deal with the EU and return to government with Sinn Féin.
“I would like to speak directly to the representatives of the unions,” said the Prime Minister. “I urge you to work with us to get Stormont back up and running. That is correct in its own terms. And I am convinced that it is also the right thing for our union. I am a proud unionist.”
Mr Sunak said the fact that Stormont’s institutions have been “crushed” for nine of the 25 years since the historic Good Friday Agreement “should be a cause of deep concern”.
The Prime Minister added: “In the long term this will not strengthen the cause of unionism. I deeply believe that. So we have to make the institutions work and keep them going.”
Mr Sunak said today’s leaders should take “inspiration and guidance” from the Good Friday Agreement, forged 25 years ago to deliver on the promise of “decentralized stable government” for the province.
Former US President Bill Clinton used his own speech at the Queen’s University conference to support Mr Sunak’s compromise deal on the Northern Ireland Protocol and urge the DUP to “get the show back on the road”.
He told the audience, including European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, that the Windsor deal “seems to me, as an outsider who cares a lot, like the best deal you can get to share the baby anyway.” .
Mr Clinton said it would give the province the benefits of access to European markets and the UK market – describing it as “the best of both worlds”. But he warned that “no matter how good a deal is… what really matters is how long it holds people’s imagination and trust.”
Referring to the impasse at the Stormont institutions, Mr Clinton said “it’s time to get this show on the streets” – and said the Good Friday Agreement “should never be used to ensure there can be no self-government”.
Ms Von der Leyen told the conference that the Windsor deal on post-Brexit trade deals was a “fresh start for old friends” – and urged leaders to “have the same wisdom and vision that Northern Ireland’s leaders have had in recent years.” 25 years”.
Ms Von der Leyen spoke warmly about former DUP leader Ian Paisley and his journey from rejecting the Good Friday Agreement to sharing power with Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness less than 10 years later.
Mr Heaton-Harris had used his speech on Tuesday to urge the DUP to follow the example of the late Mr Paisley and have the “courage” to return to Stormont. “Real leadership is about knowing when to say yes and having the courage to do it,” he said.
But it provoked a defiant reaction from DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, who hit back by saying unionists would not be “intimidated” into returning to Stormont while they still had concerns about Sunak’s Brexit deal.
“The great and good can lecture us all they want for a cheap round of applause, but it won’t change the political reality,” said Sir Jeffrey, although he said he had “good exchanges” with Mr in Belfast earlier this week Clinton had .
And DUP MP Gavin Robinson said Mr Heaton-Harris’ comments were “more akin to a speech by an unsuspecting Irish-American MP” while the DUP MLA would not “bow to presidents and prime ministers”.
Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar was applauded when he said at the conference on Wednesday that the people of Northern Ireland deserve a functioning assembly.
“It falls to Northern Ireland’s political leaders today to take the initiative,” he said. “To take control of their history, to take control of their destiny, and lead their people into the future.”
Charles Michel, President of the European Council, told the conference that the UK and EU “need each other more than ever” – and said the Good Friday Agreement was a “powerful symbol of what our shared values can achieve”.
Mr Clinton expressed optimism there could be a break in the political impasse after his meeting with the DUP leader on Tuesday. “I left this meeting more optimistic than I entered it,” he told the BBC.
There is speculation that Sir Jeffrey could agree to decentralization after Northern Ireland’s local elections on May 18, but it is believed the party is keen to continue its hard-line anti-protocol stance next month.