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Thursday 21 September 2023 Dublin: 11°C
Akshata Murthy, Rishi Sunak, Former US president Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar following the international conference to mark the 25th anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, at Queen's University Belfast. Picture date:
# queen's university belfast
Political leaders in Northern Ireland urged to restore Stormont on final day of GFA summit
Varadkar, Sunak, and Bill Clinton made similar appeals on the final day of the conference being held in Queen’s University Belfast.

LAST UPDATE | Apr 19th 2023, 5:41 PM

TAOISEACH LEO VARADKAR has paid tribute to the political leaders who brokered the Good Friday Agreement.

He was addressing a major conference on the 25th anniversary of the Agreement at Queen’s University Belfast today.

The three-day event has seen political leaders fly in from across the world, including former British prime minister Tony Blair, former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and European Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic.

The speakers on the final day of the conference included former US president Bill Clinton, former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, and British prime Minister Rishi Sunak.

A gala dinner at Hillsborough Castle will take place later this evening, which both Leo Varadkar and Rishi Sunak will attend.

A number of former prime ministers, including Boris Johnson, and ex-US president Bill Clinton are also expected at the dinner in Co Down which will end a series of events commemorating the peace deal.

The leaders of political parties in the North will also attend.

‘Defied what was possible’

Speaking at Queen’s University this afternoon at the conference’s final day, Varadkar said the Good Friday Agreement “challenged our assumptions of what we once thought possible”.

While Varadkar noted that the difficult compromises required were seen as “political impossibilities for many”, he added that “vision, leadership and optimism triumphed”.

“Leaders defied assumptions about what was possible,” he said.

“They also defied those within their own communities … who would have preferred to stay mired in conflict to avoid concessions or compromises.

“They realised that to see their way to a better future, they had to reject the divisions and differences that had kept Northern Ireland in what seemed an unresolvable impasse for many decades.

“These were not easy decisions to make and some paid a high personal and political price.”

He added that they were the “architects of that better future”, saying: “I thank them from the bottom of my heart, on behalf of my generation.”

Varadkar also remarked that the Irish Government will “continue to work with all the parties in Northern Ireland and with our partners in London to drive the process forward to the benefit of everyone on our islands”.

He was applauded as he said the people of Northern Ireland deserve a functioning assembly.

“Speaking after the agreement was concluded,” said Varadkar, “(then-SDLP leader) John Hume said that ‘unionists and nationalists have at last taken the future in their hands, they have seized control of their history rather than letting history hold them in thrall’.

“It is incumbent on Northern Ireland’s political leaders today to take the initiative…. and we as co-guarantors of the agreement will be here to help, every step of the way.”

Future of the Union

British prime Minister Rishi Sunak also insisted that restoring powersharing is the “right thing” to do for the future of the Union.

Sunak used his speech to make a direct appeal to unionists blocking the institutions in Belfast.

The DUP is using a veto contained within the powersharing structures to prevent the operation of devolution in protest at post-Brexit trading arrangements the party contends has weakened Northern Ireland’s place within the UK.

Sunak today said the new Windsor Framework deal he recently struck with the EU had addressed the DUP concerns over sovereignty and trade.

Addressing unionist political representatives during his speech, Sunak said: “I urge you to work with us to get Stormont up and running again.

“That’s the right thing to do in its own terms. I’m convinced it’s also the right thing to do for our union.

“Now, I’m a proud unionist. We passionately believe that Northern Ireland is stronger within the United Kingdom, and the United Kingdom is stronger with Northern Ireland within it.

“But we must also build support beyond those of us who already identify as unionists. To do that, we have to show that devolved government within the United Kingdom works for Northern Ireland.

“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.

“So, we need to get the institutions up and running – and keep them up and running.”

Meanwhile, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen described the Windsor Framework as a “new beginning for old friends”.

She also highlighted Northern Ireland’s “unique” opportunity to attract investment under the Windsor Framework trading arrangements agreed by London and Brussels, with the region having unfettered access to sell into both the UK and EU markets.

“The Windsor Framework is a new beginning for old friends, it turns the page on years of division and dispute,” she said.

“It is an opportunity to set our sights on the future of our partnership and to focus on what brings us together.”

‘Best of both worlds’

Former US president Bill Clinton also lent his support to the Windsor Framework during his speech today at Queen’s University.

He called it “the best of both worlds”, adding: “This Windsor Agreement – seems to me anyway, as an outsider who cares very much – is about the best deal you could get to split the baby.”

Clinton also remarked that peace accords are more likely to last at least 15 years if women are involved, before adding: “Now I expect Gerry Adams to get some sort of international award for women’s rights as Sinn Féin has virtually purged itself of male leadership.”

The former US president Bill Clinton said the Good Friday Agreement has lasted because people wanted it.

“It’s lasted 25 years, most peace agreements fall apart in less than a decade. That’s worth remembering. It lasted, I think, because the people demanded it, because the process was really good and Senator George Mitchell did a brilliant job of leading it and negotiating it.”

Turning to the Stormont institutions, Clinton said “it is time to get this show on the road”.

“This whole deal was never supposed to be an engine of obstruction,” said Clinton.

“The agreement was never supposed to be used to make sure there could be no self-government.

“We know what the votes were at the last election, we can add them up, the allocation of seats in the parliamentary body, and it is time to get this show on the road.”

Speaking earlier, US envoy to Northern Ireland Joe Kennedy III, who is the grand-nephew of JFK, emphasised the opportunities presented by Northern Ireland’s dual access to the UK and EU markets.

Kennedy’s remit is focused on stimulating economic growth in Northern Ireland, earlier

“Two of my primary responsibilities will be trying to get those firms who are already here to expand their footprint and, of course, to make the case to the next set of global partners about why they should come here,” he said.

“Perhaps not surprisingly, many executives are already aware of the case for Northern Ireland.

“They know about the talent and the ease of transit. They know about the potential for market access.

“They also, yes, want clarity and certainty. They want to have a good idea of what might change and how and when that might happen. The sooner they have answers to those questions, the better for a Northern Ireland economy.”

Elsewhere, the head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service told the conference this morning that a meeting with Kennedy reminded her of the final episode of Derry Girls.

Dr Jayne Brady told the audience at the Queen’s University conference that she was joined by Kennedy at a mural depicting the main characters of the series last week.

“And it made me think of the brilliant and very moving Agreement episode and something very poignant that Erin said: ‘Things can’t stay the same. And they shouldn’t. No matter how scary it is, we have to move on and we have to grow up because things, well, they might just change for the better’.”

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