Rishi Sunak to deliver closing address to Good Friday Agreement conference in Belfast

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has delivered the closing address at a major three-day conference to mark the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.

The event at Queen’s University Belfast has seen political leaders fly in from across the world, including former US president Bill Clinton, ex-prime minister Tony Blair, former Irish premier Bertie Ahern and European Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said he had a direct message for unionist leaders

“I urge you to work with us to get Stormont up and running again. That’s the right thing to do.”

He added the Windsor Framework was "a breakthrough moment".

"It solves practical problems and crucially strengthens Northern Ireland's place in our union and our UK internal market,” he said.

"It gives the assembly significant new powers ready for when it sits again.

"And I am confident we can build broad support for it across all communities.

"So I share people's frustrations that the institutions are not back up and running."

Mr Sunak said he feels "more optimistic and hopeful" every time he visits Northern Ireland.

"To paraphrase the late David Trimble, there may be hills ahead of us, but there are mountains behind," he said.

The Prime Minister reflected on the Poyntzpass killings of Philip Allen and his "lifelong friend" Damien Trainor weeks before the agreement was signed.

"One was a Protestant, the other Catholic.

"Now, the people who murdered them may have hoped to sow chaos and division and derail the peace talks. They failed. Because the story of this remarkable friendship inspired one of the most decisive breakthroughs of the whole peace process: the agreement to share power between equal first and deputy first ministers in a co-premiership with one from each community."

He said this was the promise of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.

"Together we can and we must fulfil it."

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen also addressed the conference on Wednesday.

The Belfast/Good Friday Agreement "challenged our assumptions of what we once thought possible", the Taoiseach said.

Mr Varadkar said the difficult compromises required were seen as "political impossibilities for many", but "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.

"Here in Belfast today I want to re-dedicate the Irish Government to 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.

"Both governments have an ongoing obligation to honour and implement the agreement and that is why I am so pleased to share a stage with Prime Minister Sunak.

"The peace process has always been at its strongest when the two governments have worked hand in hand. And Northern Ireland works best when the two governments work together with an agreed strategy.

"A partnership approach - often based on difficult decisions - has been decisive in driving things forward at crucial points in the past.

"To quote the Prime Minister, 'the agreement was born of partnership together', and I believe we can make the Good Friday Agreement fulfil its promise of reconciliation and shared achievement."

Ms von der Leyen said the Windsor Framework on post-Brexit trade was a "new beginning for old friends".

She highlighted Northern Ireland's "unique" opportunity to attract investment under the trading arrangements agreed between the EU and UK

"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.

"More investors are now eyeing Northern Ireland, this is a unique opportunity for Northern Ireland. There is so much we can do together with wisdom and vision.

"The same wisdom and vision that the leaders of Northern Ireland have already shown over the past 25 years."

Mr Sunak is to be joined by two of his recent predecessors – Boris Johnson and Liz Truss – at a gala dinner later, attended by political leaders, international dignitaries and leading charities.

While celebrating the achievement of the 1998 deal, the conference has also seen words of encouragement to restore the Stormont Assembly, which has been collapsed for the last year amid a DUP boycott over the Brexit protocol.

On Tuesday, Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris claimed a restoration of the Stormont institutions was the surest way to secure the region’s place in the UK, and said “real leadership” was about having the courage to say “yes”.

At a separate event in Londonderry on Tuesday evening, Mr Clinton insisted it would be “fairly easy” to resurrect Stormont if it was wanted, but cautioned that “an excuse can always be found to say no”.

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said his party will not be “browbeaten into submission”, and insisted unionist concerns around the protocol must be addressed.

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