North’s ‘irresponsible’ leaders urged to return to governance

Eamon Gilmore says NI central to European Brexit debate but voice from Belfast is ‘silent’

Former tánaiste Eamon Gilmore said Northern Ireland was facing its most critical moment since the 1998 Belfast agreement. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times.

Former tánaiste Eamon Gilmore said Northern Ireland was facing its most critical moment since the 1998 Belfast agreement. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times.

 

The DUP and Sinn Féin have been urged to return to governance in Northern Ireland, with former tánaiste Eamon Gilmore describing the leadership of the parties as “irresponsible”.

Speaking in Washington at a conference hosted by the University of Notre Dame, Mr Gilmore said that with the UK’s European Union exit looming Northern Ireland was facing its most critical moment since the 1998 Belfast agreement.

“This is a moment for political leadership on behalf of the political parties – to get their act together, to get the executive back in place,” he said.

“The whole of Europe is thinking and talking about Northern Ireland. It is at the centre of the Brexit issue, and the voice from Belfast is silent.

“Northern Ireland needs a joined -up voice for the whole of the people of Northern Ireland. That’s going to become more critical as the clock ticks down to March 2019 -there is no time to be lost in putting the executive back together again.”

The devolved institutions at Stormont collapsed in January 2017 when Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness stood down as deputy first minister as a result of the so-called ‘cash for ash’ controversy. Efforts to restore powersharing have failed to date.

Agendas

Mr Gilmore, who was appointed EU special envoy to the Colombian peace process in 2015, said that while the governments in London and Dublin had a role to play, the real responsibility fell to the political parties in Northern Ireland. He said the British and Irish governments inevitably had different agendas in terms of the wider Brexit issue.

“That is why the voice from within Northern Ireland is so critical,” he said.

The former Labour leader and minister for foreign affairs was the keynote speaker at a conference on “Strategies for Lasting Peace Accords” hosted by the Keough School of Global Affairs and the Irish embassy in Washington.

The University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute is centrally involved with verifying and monitoring the implementation of the Colombian peace process, which was agreed in 2016.

Mr Gilmore said the Northern Ireland peace process had a very big influence on the peace process in Colombia. While there were many parallels between the two conflicts, he said there were also differences, not least in terms of scale.

“In Colombia nearly 250,000 people were killed over a 50 year period, while six million people were displaced. The only country that had more landmines than Colombia was Afghanistan. This was the biggest conflict in the Western Hemisphere,” he said.

Nonetheless, the two conflicts also shared many characteristics, including tensions over the release of prisoners.

“On my very last visit to Colombia a few weeks ago, we were dealing with a very difficult situation whereby one of the leaders of FARC had been arrested on foot of a US extradition request had gone on hunger strike, and a number of other prisoners had gone on hunger strike in sympathy with him,” he said. “To be able to draw on the experience of Northern Ireland was very useful.”