The powersharing impasse in Northern Ireland will not be solved by demeaning the concerns of unionists, a DUP MLA has said.
Emma Little-Pengelly told the Queen’s University conference commemorating the Good Friday Agreement that hers was a party of devolution and it wanted to get back into government at Stormont.
But she said that could only happen when there was a sustainable basis for governance and a return to the principles behind the landmark 1998 deal of unionist and nationalist aspirations both being respected.
Ms Little-Pengelly was taking part in a debate with the leaders of the four other main Stormont parties. DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson did not participate in the discussion panel.
The DUP is currently blocking devolution in protest at post-Brexit trading arrangements that the party believes have undermined Northern Ireland’s place within the UK.
At times audience members at Queen’s made clear their opposition to the DUP’s stance, loudly clapping points made by other party representatives when they criticised the Stormont boycott.
Ms Little-Pengelly insisted unionist grievances were not manufactured and said the conference audience was not representative of the electorate.
“The reality is that we need to have a fair deal,” she said.
“We need to address the issues of unionism, anybody in this hall who thinks it’s easy to say ‘no, we need to get this right’ in the face of presidents and prime ministers and pressure and the scoffing and mocking of the DUP, I would say this, in terms of this room, this room doesn’t represent the voters that are out there.
“The voters that are out there speak to us on the doors all the time, they’re articulating their concerns. I am not here to bow to presidents and prime ministers. I am here to speak for the people and their genuine concerns and to try to get that resolved.”
“The DUP is a party of devolution,” she added.
“We want to get devolution back, and we want to make each of the departments work. We want our citizens to be happy, to be healthy and to be able to live fulfilled lives here in Northern Ireland, there are pathways to do that.”
Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald said the concerns of the DUP had been listened to and were reflected in the changes to post-Brexit trade brought about by the UK and EU’s Windsor Framework deal.
Ms McDonald said no one has “any right whatsoever to disregard the views, the fears, the anxieties of the other”.
Directing her comments to Ms Little-Pengelly, Ms McDonald said the DUP’s concerns had been heard “so loudly” and taken so seriously that there have been “years of a sustained negotiation”.
“So the question now has to be, particularly for the DUP, you now arrive at a crossroads, and a moment of decision,” she said.
“And I sincerely say to you, I really pray that that decision is the right decision, because it seems to be unconscionable that we stay in this limbo and that we drift.
“For me the most frightening prospect is drift. We agreed that we have to work together. We all live here. That’s not going to change. That will never change. We have different views. That’s not going to change either.
“What has to change now is that we have the institutions, as imperfect as they are, functioning for everybody.”
“The truth is if we get it up and running again, which I hope we do in short term, there’s no guarantee that it will survive because the institutions are not just fragile but unstable,” she said.
“I think people now feel quite jaded and cynical about the Good Friday Agreement. And I think that is a tragedy, because it is one of the most enduring peace agreements anywhere in the world and we should be proud of it and we should take care of it.
“But if we do not deal with the fundamental instabilities, it will wither away and support for it will wither away through frustration and cynicism and that to me would be a scandalous waste of an opportunity for all of us.”
Referring to the Ms Little-Pengelly’s remarks, Ms Long questioned the DUP’s support for Brexit.
“I do understand why unionism is uncomfortable with the protocol and with the Windsor Framework, but I can’t understand how you did not see this coming with Brexit,” she said.
“We fought the last election in May on a system of government that we were going to employ and Sinn Fein became the largest party,” he said.
“If they are not allowed to take their place and if we’re not allowed to get a government up and running now, then we really are trampling all over democracy here in Northern Ireland.
“I say that as a unionist, as a whole UK unionist. What happens in Scotland, what happens in Wales, what happens in England is as important to me as what happens here in Northern Ireland, we are a collection of nations, which makes the Union go forward.
“Therefore, if any part of that nation is damaged, is weak, then the whole nation is damaged and weak. And, right now, Northern Ireland is damaged because we have no government.”
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood rejected the suggestion that post-Brexit trade had changed the constitutional position of Northern Ireland.
“It’s very clear that this hasn’t changed because if it’s changed I missed the victory party,” he said.
“The people of Northern Ireland, the people of the Republic of Ireland, in concurrent referendum decide what happens, because the UK or United Ireland that is the only basis on which we decide a constitutional future.
“That means that I have to do some work to convince people that it’s a good idea to change the constitutional position. But it hasn’t changed.
“I hear this from the DUP, I sit behind them in the House of Commons, and I hear this all the time about the constitutional position has changed. When did that happen?”
He added: “Emma talks about exclusion – the only people excluding the DUP are the DUP themselves, you have to opt in.”