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Architects Of Good Friday Agreement Urge The DUP To Do "What's Right" And Rejoin Stormont

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson (Alamy)

4 min read

Architects of the Good Friday Agreement have urged the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to end its boycott of Northern Ireland's political institutions at a major conference to mark the 25th anniversary of the historic peace deal.

Speaking at Queen's University Belfast, former Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern said there were "too many big things" facing the people of Northern Ireland for the region to continue without a fully-functioning government, as it has done since early 2022.

"I just really plead and deeply hope that the DUP will pay their word back to us and stay in the role with us, because the people of Northern Ireland need them," said Ahern.

"The people on this island need them. We all want to work together, the alternatives are not good. We don't even think about them," Ireland's former leader added.

Ahern was speaking on a panel alongside former prime minister Tony Blair and ex-US president Bill Clinton, in a discussion chaired by former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Monday afternoon.

Ahern, Blair and Clinton were the leaders of their respective nations when the treaty was signed in April 1998, and played key roles in brokering the agreement which brought relative peace to the region after decades of violent secterian conflict known as The Troubles.

While he didn't mention the DUP by name, Blair urged politicians in the Northern Ireland to "get on and do" what they know in their "heart of hearts" is the right thing, in remarks seemingly directed at the party led by Sir Jeffrey Donaldson.

"We know that peace isn't perfect," said Blair.

"We know the institutions have often been rocky and unstable, as they are today. We know there is still a lot of mistrust and distrust between communities."

He continued: "But we also know that Northern Ireland is a much better place than it was before the Good Friday Agreement, and the only thing I would say to today's leaders is when you stand back and reflect, you know in your heart of hearts what the right thing to do is and you should just get on and do it."

Earlier in the day, former US senator George Mitchell, of whom a bust was unveiled within the grounds of Queen's University in tribute to his contribution to the peace talks, urged Northern Ireland's political parties to embrace compromise to end the long-running impasse. Clinton appointed Mitchell to act as a mediator in the Good Friday Agreement negotiations.

"I know that each of your parties – like all political parties in the world – have some of what I call the 100 per centers, they want everything their way all the time – to them, any compromise is a sign of weakness," said Mitchell, whose speech received a standing ovation.

“I say to you that reasoned, principled compromise is essential, especially in divided societies. It reflects a belief in democratic values that we all are in this together."

The DUP walked out of Stormont's devolved power-sharing government early last year in protest against the Northern Ireland Protocol. The deal was agreed as part of the UK's Brexit deal with the European Union as a way of avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland, but did so by creating a contentious trade border in the Irish Sea.

In February, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen signed a revised version of the treaty called the Windsor framework, which was formally adopted by London and Brussels after comfortably passing a House of Commons vote.

While the DUP has described the deal as an improvement on the original protocol, it says it does not go far enough to address its concerns about Northern Ireland's place in the Union.

Ministers are hopeful that the DUP will agree to re-enter power-sharing this summer once Northern Ireland's 18 May local elections are out of the way, PoliticsHome reported last month. 

Chris Heaton Harris, the secretary of state for Northern Ireland, has told the DUP that the government will provide futher "constitutional guarantees" in a bid to address the party's concerns about the region's place in the UK under the new deal with the EU.

PM Sunak is set to deliver a speech at the 'Agreement 25' conference on Wednesday before hosting a dinner that will be attended by senior politicians in the UK and Ireland and figures who played a key part in the 1998 peace deal. Former prime miisters including Boris Johnson and Liz Truss will attend the evening meal, PoliticsHome understands.

Heaton Harris will address the conference on Tuesday morning, with Irish foreign minister Micheál Martin and European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic also due to speak. As well as Sunak, Bill Clinton, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and EU chiefs von der Leyen and Charles Michel will give speeches on Wednesday.

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