Northern Ireland can never go back to its violent past, says Sunak

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Northern Ireland can never go back to its violent past, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has told a gathering of past and present political leaders in Co Down.

The event featured one of the most significant audiences in Northern Ireland’s history, including four former prime ministers, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, three former Taoisigh and former US president Bill Clinton.

It followed a major three-day conference at the Queen’s University in Belfast to mark the 25th anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.

He told guests they were gathered to mark a “truly extraordinary achievement” in the 1998 accord which largely brought the Troubles to an end.

He referred to meeting Detective Chief Inspector John Caldwell, who was seriously injured after being shot by dissidents in Omagh earlier this year.

The Prime Minister said they agreed that Northern Ireland cannot go back to its violent past.

“Last week I visited a man who has dedicated himself to building that future, a policeman, a father, a husband, a children’s football coach, DCI John Caldwell,” he said.

Good Friday Agreement 25th Anniversary
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak delivers a speech (Charles McQuillan/PA)

“We can’t go back. If there is one message from this hall tonight, one message from the people of Northern Ireland to the world, it is surely this, we will never go back.

“Instead we will learn the lessons of 25 years ago, we will keep working, keep moving forward, bringing everyone with us until we realise in full the future that the people of Northern Ireland deserve.”

Police officer shot in Omagh
Detective Chief Inspector John Caldwell was shot and badly injured (David Young/PA)

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, as well as his predecessors Dame Arlene Foster and Peter Robinson, and Sinn Fein president Mary-Lou McDonald and vice president Michelle O’Neill were among the guests at the dinner.

Former prime minister Sir Tony drew laughter as he playfully started his address to the dinner with a famous quote of his from 1998: “Tonight is not a night for soundbites. Fortunately the hand of history is firmly on someone else’s shoulder.”

He reflected on the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement and said it only happened because leaders took risks and ventured from a place of comfort to create change.

Good Friday Agreement 25th Anniversary
Former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern gives a speech during a gala dinner at Hillsborough Castle, Co Down (Charles McQuillan/PA)

Former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern responded to warm comments from Sir Tony, saying he had never believed a British prime minister would take Ireland as seriously as the former PM did.

He highlighted how they had agreed to “rigorous impartiality” as the two governments in the 1990s negotiations.

“That strict balance is hugely important to what we achieved,” he added.

Mr Sunak and Mr Varadkar had a private meeting before the dinner.

Good Friday Agreement 25th Anniversary
Former prime minister Boris Johnson (left) greets Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris as they arrive for a gala dinner at Hillsborough Castle, Co Down (Charles McQuillan/PA)

The Irish government readout said: “Their shared priority is the return of a functioning assembly and executive and they committed to working together in the period ahead in ongoing support of the agreement and its institutions.”

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer also expressed his desire to see the Stormont Assembly functioning again, and urged the Government to be an “honest broker”.

Speaking as he arrived at Hillsborough Castle, Sir Keir said: “My hope that that window of opportunity to get the institutions back up is there, but it will be a matter for the parties here in Northern Ireland, the UK Government has to be that honest broker.”

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