Boycotting Stormont threatens Northern Ireland’s place in UK not Brexit, DUP warned
Boycotting Stormont threatens Northern Ireland’s place in the UK more than Rishi Sunak’s Brexit deal, Chris Heaton-Harris told the DUP as he urged them to “put the Union first” and get back to power-sharing.
“Real leaders know when to say yes,” the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland said, as he called on the DUP to embrace the Windsor Framework and return to devolved government, which was created by the Good Friday Agreement.
Mr Heaton-Harris praised unionist leaders David Trimble and David Ervine for leading “not only their own parties, but unionism and loyalism in saying yes to peace” during Good Friday Agreement negotiations 25 years ago.
“Real leadership is about knowing when to say yes, and having the courage to do so,” he said at an event at Queen’s University Belfast.
“Let no one tell you that power sharing is in any way at odds with unionism. Instead is the surest way by which Northern Ireland’s place in the Union can be secured,” Mr Heaton-Harris said.
The DUP has boycotted Stormont for the last 14 months over post-Brexit trade rules for the region, despite Rishi Sunak’s new Windsor Framework deal with Brussels.
That new Brexit deal, which was signed in February, has not yet been accepted by the DUP, which fears Northern Ireland’s place in the UK is jeopardised by the Irish Sea border.
The lack of devolved government has made Northern Irish politicians powerless to respond to issues such as the cost of living crisis in the UK’s poorest region and the lengthiest NHS waiting times in the UK.
‘Put the Union first – and get on with the job’
Mr Heaton-Harris said: “The people in Northern Ireland are rightly demanding better, more responsive public services, greater economic prosperity and a brighter future for their children.
“The biggest threat to Northern Ireland’s place in the union is failing to deliver on these priorities.”
He added: “I make no apologies for being proud of Northern Ireland’s place in the Union and for wanting it to continue.
“Others who share that view should put the Union first, restore the devolved institutions and get on with the job of delivering for the people of Northern Ireland.”
‘I am not here to bow to presidents and prime ministers’
DUP MLA Emma Little-Pengelly said the Good Friday Agreement had been undermined by the Brexit deal.
She said the peace agreement guaranteed Northern Ireland would remain part of the UK until there was a referendum for reunification, which allowed power-sharing for the first time.
Ms Little-Pengelly said unionists felt the Northern Ireland Protocol and Windsor Framework broke that guarantee by introducing border checks with Britain and the region continuing to be subject to EU laws.
“Those grievances. They exist. They’re real, they’re genuine. If they had been listened to two years ago, the institutions would not have collapsed,” she said.
“If the promises made to unionism in Northern Ireland had been fulfilled, the institutions would not have collapsed.”
“The reality is sometimes as hard as it may be, it is the right thing to say no, this is not fair,” Ms Little-Pengelly said.
“If we move into the Assembly without getting the foundations right and addressing these issues, then there’s only going to be a collapse again.”
“We can only get it back if we get this right,” she added, “I am not here to bow to presidents and prime ministers. I am here to speak for the people on their genuine concerns.”
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, the leader of the DUP, who faces tricky local elections next month, said he had a “useful exchange” with former president Bill Clinton on Monday but refused a swift return to Stormont.
Mr Heaton-Harris also addressed US concerns over a lack of cooperation between Dublin and London to break the Stormont deadlock, expressed by Joe Biden in a speech to the Irish parliament last Thursday.
“The cooperation between the UK and Irish government is vital to protecting and upholding the agreement and I am determined in my capacity as Secretary of State to deepen and strengthen that vital relationship,” Mr Heaton-Harris said.
Micheál Martin, Ireland’s deputy prime minister, also called on the DUP to return to power-sharing, a day after similar calls by Tony Blair and Hillary Clinton and a week after Mr Biden dangled the prospect of billions in US investment if they did.
Mr Martin, a former Taoiseach, admitted that relations between London and Dublin had been stretched by Brexit, which created a UK land border with the EU for the first time.
“It is no secret that our two governments have not always acted in concert at all times in recent years,” he said.
“But I’m delighted to say that our partnership is manifestly better now than it has been for quite some time. Of course, like everything else of value, it needs continued care, commitment, and investment.”
Mary Lou McDonald, the leader of Sinn Fein, said, “We need the government up and running and that means we need a decision from all political leaders that again, we will work together, we will share power.”
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