19 April 2023

Northern Ireland can never go back to its violent past, says Sunak

19 April 2023

Northern Ireland can never go back to its violent past, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has told a gathering of past and present political leaders in Co Down.

The event featured one of the most significant audiences in Northern Ireland’s history, including four former prime ministers, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, three former Taoisigh and former US president Bill Clinton.

It followed a major three-day conference at the Queen’s University in Belfast to mark the 25th anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.

Mr Sunak started with a joke about negotiations for the seating plan for the event, with the guest list including Boris Johnson, Liz Truss, Theresa May and Sir Tony Blair.

He told guests they were gathered to mark a “truly extraordinary achievement” in the 1998 accord which largely brought the Troubles to an end.

He referred to meeting Detective Chief Inspector John Caldwell, who was seriously injured after being shot by dissidents in Omagh earlier this year.

The Prime Minister said they agreed that Northern Ireland cannot go back to its violent past.

“Last week I visited a man who has dedicated himself to building that future, a policeman, a father, a husband, a children’s football coach, DCI John Caldwell,” he said.

“We sat together and talked about the society he loves and about his ordeal. He told me, ‘we can’t go back’.”

“We can’t go back. If there is one message from this hall tonight, one message from the people of Northern Ireland to the world, it is surely this, we will never go back.

“Instead we will learn the lessons of 25 years ago, we will keep working, keep moving forward, bringing everyone with us until we realise in full the future that the people of Northern Ireland deserve.”

The gathering came as the Stormont Assembly remains effectively collapsed due to a DUP boycott. The party is calling for action from the UK government over its concerns around the Brexit protocol.

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, as well as his predecessors Dame Arlene Foster and Peter Robinson, and Sinn Fein president Mary-Lou McDonald and vice president Michelle O’Neill were among the guests at the dinner.

Former prime minister Sir Tony drew laughter as he playfully started his address to the dinner with a famous quote of his from 1998: “Tonight is not a night for soundbites. Fortunately the hand of history is firmly on someone else’s shoulder.”

He reflected on the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement and said it only happened because leaders took risks and ventured from a place of comfort to create change.

“Tonight we mark it with honour but I can tell you, 25 years ago, this agreement only happened because leaders were prepared to put their leadership in peril for the good of their people,” he said.

Former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern responded to warm comments from Sir Tony, saying he had never believed a British prime minister would take Ireland as seriously as the former PM did.

He highlighted how they had agreed to “rigorous impartiality” as the two governments in the 1990s negotiations.

“That strict balance is hugely important to what we achieved,” he added.

Mr Sunak and Mr Varadkar had a private meeting before the dinner.

The Taoiseach’s office indicated they agreed that the 25th anniversary of the agreement is a “critical opportunity” to bring renewed focus on protecting the gains of peace.

The Irish government readout said: “Their shared priority is the return of a functioning assembly and executive and they committed to working together in the period ahead in ongoing support of the agreement and its institutions.”

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer also expressed his desire to see the Stormont Assembly functioning again, and urged the Government to be an “honest broker”.

Speaking as he arrived at Hillsborough Castle, Sir Keir said: “My hope that that window of opportunity to get the institutions back up is there, but it will be a matter for the parties here in Northern Ireland, the UK Government has to be that honest broker.”

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