Sunak urges unionists to ‘work with us’ to restore powersharing

Bill Clinton tells final day of Queen’s conference it is time to ‘get this show on the road’

The way to honour the legacy of the Belfast Agreement is to have the Northern institutions operating for “every single year” of the next 25, the UK prime minister has said.

Delivering the closing speech at a three-day conference in Queen’s University Belfast to mark the 25th anniversary of the agreement, Rishi Sunak urged unionists to “work with us” to restore the powersharing government.

He said that “the institutions have been down for nine of the last 25 years should be a source of profound concern” and warned “over the long term that will not bolster unionism”.

The British prime minister also addressed calls for the reform of the powersharing structures, saying “the conversation about reform can only begin once the institutions are up and running again and if it attracts widespread consent”.


Mr Sunak’s call for the restoration of the Northern institutions was echoed by other high-profile speakers on Wednesday afternoon, including Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, who said people in Northern Ireland “deserve” a functioning Executive, Assembly and North-South Ministerial Council.

Former US president Bill Clinton said the agreement was “never supposed to be used to make sure there could be no self-government” and it was now time to “get this show on the road”.

Quoting the poet Seamus Heaney as he summed up the advances made in Northern Ireland in the last 25 years, Mr Clinton said those who had helped bring about the agreement “walked on air against our better judgement. Now you have a hard floor to walk on. For God’s sakes, get up and walk”.


The Assembly and Executive – set up as a result of the agreement – remain suspended because of the DUP’s refusal to re-enter the devolved government until its concerns over post-Brexit trading arrangements are addressed.

The DUP is still considering its response to the Windsor Framework, which was agreed between the EU and UK in February, and is seeking further reassurance on sovereignty and the application of EU law in Northern Ireland.

Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson – who did not attend the conference – said there was a “bubble” at the university and there was a “rather different” mood in London.

“There is a realism in London that frankly there isn’t at the event at Queen’s, a realism that we need to sort this out, that whilst we’ll have lots of people who will tell us what the problem is, I haven’t heard anyone come forward with a solution.”

In a post on social media on Tuesday, Mr Donaldson said “the great and the good can lecture us all they want for a cheap round of applause, but it won’t change the political reality … berating unionists won’t solve the problem”.

Answering questions from reporters following his speech, Mr Varadkar said the DUP would not respond to “browbeating” from him and the party had its “own process under way, they have their own discussions under way with the UK government, and I think it’s important for us to allow that to happen. But I do hope that the next few months will result in powersharing resuming here because it is needed”.

In a meeting following the conference, Mr Varadkar raised the Coalition’s concerns over the UK government’s controversial Legacy Bill with Mr Sunak.

Among other issues discussed were the 25th anniversary of the agreement, economic opportunities for Northern Ireland and the scope for further strengthening the British-Irish relationship.

According to an Irish Government readout, the Taoiseach and prime minister “agreed the 25th anniversary was a critical opportunity to bring a renewed sense of hope and focus to protecting the peace and the gains of the Good Friday agreement for future generations”.

Mr Varadkar was among the guests at a gala dinner hosted by Mr Sunak at Hillsborough Castle on Wednesday evening to mark the anniversary.

In his speech to the conference earlier, the Taoiseach said the atmosphere had changed since Mr Sunak became prime minister and there was now a “real prospect … of restoring relations to where they were before Brexit happened”.

In her speech, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said the Windsor Framework on post-Brexit trade was a “new beginning for old friends”.

Freya McClements

Freya McClements

Freya McClements is Northern Editor of The Irish Times