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Rishi Sunak Warns A Failing Stormont Will Harm Unionism, As Pressure Grows On The DUP

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak (Alamy)

4 min read

Rishi Sunak has renewed his call for the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to rejoin Stormont, telling the closing day of a major conference in Belfast that Northern Ireland's political institutions being out of action "will not bolster" unionism.

Speaking at a Queen's University event marking the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement on Wednesday, the Prime Minister said it was in the interests of unionists for the region's devolved government to be shown to "work".

While the PM did not mention the DUP by name in his speech, he said he wanted to "speak directly" to "representatives of unionism" about the long-running impasse in Belfast, triggered by the party walking out of the power-sharing arrangements in early 2022 over Brexit.

"I urge you to work with us to get Stormont up and running again," Sunak said.

"That's the right thing to do on its own terms, and I'm convinced it's also the right thing to do for our union."

Sunak said restoring and maintaining Stormont would be key to persuading those who don't identify as unionists to support Northern Ireland's place in the UK.

"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," he said.

Sunak closed the three-day event in Belfast where several senior political figures have piled pressure on the DUP to end its boycott of the political institutions.

The party led by Sir Jeffrey Donaldson walked out at the start of last year in protest against post-Brexit arrangements for the region. The treaty, called the Northern Ireland Protocol, was designed to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland, but did so by creating a contentious trade border in the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

In February, Sunak and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen agreed a revised version of the treaty called the Windsor framework, which has been formally implemented in London and Brussels.

The DUP says the new arrangements do not go far enough to address its concerns and is refusing to get back into government, though there is growing hope that the party will agree to return to Stormont in the summer once the May local elections are out of the way.

Sunak said the UK government would not "give up" in its bid to reassure the DUP.

"We must keep working to persuade all parts of the community that returning to the institutions is the best path. We will do that. We will talk, we will listen, we will try to persuade and we will not give up," the PM told the 'Agreement25' conference.

Speaking shortly before Sunak, former US president Bill Clinton called for the restoration of Northern Ireland's political institutions, saying "it is time to get this show on the road".

Clinton, who as president played a key part in the 1998 peace deal, said the new treaty struck by the UK and European Union is unparalleled and the best possible outcome for the region.

"The Windsor agreement seems to me, an outsider who cares very much, about the best deal you can get to split the baby. To allow the benefits of access to European markets and the necessity of access to the UK market to be reconciled in a way that is the best of both worlds," he said.

Von der Leyen, European Council President Charles Michel and Ireland's Taoiseach Leo Varadkar also delivered speeches on the final day of the Belfast conference.

On Monday, former PM Tony Blair added his voice to the chorus of senior political figures calling on the DUP to end its boycott, telling the conference "you know in your heart of hearts what the right thing to do is and you should just get on and do it."

Former Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, who like Blair was in charge of his country when the Good Friday Agreement was signed, added his voice, saying he would "really plead" with Donaldson's party to re-enter power-sharing as there are "too many big things" facing people in the region.

Donaldson on Tuesday warned that his party would not be “brow beaten" into returning to Stormont.

"The great and the good can lecture us all they want for a cheap round of applause but it won’t change the political reality," he tweeted.

“The government need to work with us to address concerns and get the outstanding issues resolved. We stand ready to get the job done and see Stormont restored. But it has to have a solid foundation.”

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