US President Joe Biden expressed hopes of a return to powersharing in Northern Ireland as he insisted stable devolved government could deliver an economic windfall for the region.
In a keynote address at Ulster University in Belfast, Mr Biden praised the work of the UK and EU to strike the Windsor Framework on post-Brexit trading arrangements.
The president’s visit to Northern Ireland comes as the region marks the 25th anniversary of the landmark Good Friday peace accord that created Stormont’s powersharing institutions.
Mr Biden met Stormont’s political leaders before making the speech at the university’s new campus in Belfast city centre.
Earlier, he had a 45-minute meeting with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak at a Belfast hotel.
“As a friend, I hope it’s not too presumptuous for me to say that I believe the democratic institutions established in the Good Friday Agreement remain critical for the future of Northern Ireland,” the President said.
“It’s a decision for you to make, not for me to make, but it seems to me they are related.
“An effective devolved government that reflects the people of Northern Ireland and is accountable to them, a government that works to find ways through hard problems together, is going to draw even greater opportunity in this region.
“For in politics, no matter what divides us, if we look hard enough, there are always areas that are going to bring us together if we look hard enough. Standing for peace and rejecting political violence must be one of those things.”
He said that would only be achieved if the UK Government took further steps to address his party’s concerns about Brexit trade barriers.
“It doesn’t change the political dynamic in Northern Ireland, we know what needs to happen,” said Sir Jeffrey.
“We believe the Government needs to go further in terms of protecting Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom and our ability to trade within the UK internal market and that’s what needs to happen now to enable us to move towards the restoration of the political institutions, we need the Government to deliver what they’ve said they will do, which is to protect our place in the United Kingdom.”
In his speech, President Biden said the response of Northern Ireland’s political leaders to February’s shooting of PSNI Detective Chief Inspector John Caldwell in Omagh showed “the enemies of peace will not prevail”.
Mr Caldwell was seriously injured in the dissident republican murder bid.
“Northern Ireland will not go back, pray God,” said Mr Biden.
“The attack was a hard reminder there will always be those who seek to destroy, rather than rebuild.
“But the lesson of the Good Friday Agreement is this: at times when things seem fragile or easily broken, that is when hope and hard work are needed the most.”
Mr Biden said Brexit had created “complex challenges” for Northern Ireland.
“I encouraged the leaders of the UK and the EU to address the issues in a way that served Northern Ireland’s best interest,” he said.
“I deeply appreciate the personal leadership of Prime Minister Sunak and European Commissioner (Ursula) Von der Leyen to reach an agreement.
“The Windsor Framework addresses the practical realities of Brexit and it is an essential step to ensuring the hard-earned peace and progress of the Good Friday Agreement that they are preserved and strengthened.
“Negotiators listened to business leaders across the UK and Ireland who shared what they needed to succeed, and I believe the stability and predictability offered by this framework will encourage greater investment in Northern Ireland, significant investment in Northern Ireland.”
Mr Sunak welcomed the President’s visit and said it was a reminder of the US contribution to the peace process.
“We spoke in particular about the incredible economic opportunities that are there in store for Northern Ireland and we talked about the investment potential that is there, the companies that want to invest in Northern Ireland,” he said.
“I think that is incredibly exciting, it will bring growth, jobs and prosperity to Northern Ireland and I know he shares my ambition to see the institutions here back up and running, that is what people and businesses in Northern Ireland deserve.”
At the outset of Mr Biden’s half-day of engagements in Northern Ireland, the White House insisted the President is not anti-British.
Mr Biden, who is intensely proud of his Irish ancestry, has been criticised by senior DUP figures, with MP Sammy Wilson claiming the president “has got a record of being pro-Republican, anti-Unionist, anti-British” while former first minister Baroness Foster has suggested he “hates the UK”.
But the suggestion he was anti-British was rejected by Amanda Sloat, senior director for Europe at the US National Security Council, who said: “It’s simply untrue – the fact that the president is going to be engaging for the third time in three months, and then again next month and then again in June, with the Prime Minister of the UK shows how close our co-operation is with the UK.”
Following his address in Belfast, Mr Biden headed for the Republic of Ireland where he will spend two and a half days in an itinerary that will include political engagements in Dublin and visits taking in his ancestral roots in counties Mayo and Louth.