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GFA Negotiator: Restoring Northern Ireland's Government "Single Best" Way To End Sectarianism

Former Downing Street Chief of Staff Jonathan Powell speaking at Queen's University Belfast last year (Alamy)

4 min read

A key figure in the signing of the Good Friday peace deal has urged the Democratic Unionist Party to end its boycott of Stormont.

Jonathan Powell, who was chief of staff to former prime minister Tony Blair, said a functioning government in Northern Ireland was the "single best" way of moving away from sectarianism in the region.

Powell, who was a negotiator for the UK government when the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998, bringing decades of violent sectarian conflict to an end, told PoliticsHome that the last few years in Northern Irish politics had been "pretty depressing".

However, he expressed cautious optimism that the DUP would soon end its near-two-year boycott of Stormont, perhaps as soon "in the next couple of weeks".

The DUP, led by Sir Jeffrey Donaldson MP, is the second-largest party in Northern Ireland behind nationalists Sinn Fein. The party collapsed the region's power-sharing government in early 2022 in protest against post-Brexit arrangements for trade with Great Britain across the Irish Sea negotiated by the UK government. According to the DUP, these new arrangements had fundamentally undermined Northern Ireland's place in the United Kingdom.

In February, Rishi Sunak and the European Union agreed a new deal for the region called the Windsor Framework, replacing the contentious Northern Ireland Protocol, a treaty negotiated by former prime minister Boris Johnson. The DUP said the Windsor Framework was an improvement but did not go far enough to address its concerns, and since then Donaldson has been in talks with the government about resolving these remaining issues.

Speaking to PoliticsHome, Powell said he hoped Donaldson and other politicians in Northern Ireland would look to political leaders before him who put their fundamental differences aside to work together in a power-sharing government.

"The remarkable thing is that Ian Paisley [former DUP first minister] and Martin McGuinness [former Sinn Fein deputy first minister] were both instrumental at the beginning of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, but were able to make the system work and were able to work together despite being so different," said Powell.

He continued: "Now, a new generation seems to find it really hard to make power sharing work, even though they don't have the same legacy and investment in The Troubles themselves. So, that's a bit depressing.

"If we saw the institutions going back up again, and maybe we will in the next couple of weeks, I certainly hope we do, I think that will be the single biggest thing you could do to start moving away from sectarianism."

After many months of negotiations and false dawns, however, there is hope on both sides of the Irish Sea that Donaldson is on the cusp of taking his party back into power sharing.

This week, the government extended the deadline for fresh Assembly elections in Northern Ireland by just over two weeks. The short length of the extension indicates confidence in London that the DUP will agree to return to Stormont in the days ahead.

Last Friday, there were suggestions that the party was on the brink of approving a return when a party insider told outlets including PoliticsHome that Donaldson had called a meeting of senior officers to decide whether to accept or reject the UK government's offer.

That meeting last week did not produce an agreement, and in since then Donaldson has sought to to reject claims that it was a "make or break" moment for his party.

But despite Donaldson's attempts to play down the significance of that meeting, hopes are growing that the DUP and Westminster are close to agreeing a deal that would see the restoration of Northern Ireland's institutions after Donaldson's party walked out in early 2022.

On Wednesday, the MP for Lagan Valley delivered an impassioned House of Commons speech in which he sought to face down hardline critics of his approach to talks with the UK government, like the Traditional Unionist Voice party. He said the TUV had done "nothing" to secure changes to the Irish Sea border, and went on to accuse a minority of people in the unionist movement of planning to oppose any deal with the Sunak administration regardless of what it includes because they would rather be ruled from Westminster.

His furious speech was welcomed by MPs who want to see Stormont restored, and was seen as another potential sign that he was close to taking his party back into power sharing.

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