Northern Ireland's DUP resists pressure to end govt boycott

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Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, former US president Bill Clinton and former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton chat as they walk to the Queen's University Belfast in Belfast, Wednesday, April 19, 2023 during the international conference to mark the 25th anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. (AP Photo/Peter Morrison)

LONDON – Northern Ireland’s politicians got the message. Some of them don’t like it.

Unionist lawmakers have bristled as, with a united voice, leaders of the U.K., European Union officials, and a former and current U.S. president urged them to restore the mothballed Belfast government and reap the reward of more economic investment in Northern Ireland.

“There can be no prosperity without peace, and there can be no peace without prosperity,” U.S. trade envoy Joe Kennedy III said during a conference in Belfast on Wednesday.

Former President Bill Clinton said Northern Ireland's people deserve a working government.

“It’s time to get this show on the road,” Clinton said.

Their statements were the latest in a drumbeat of messages pressing the Democratic Unionist Party to end a political crisis that is clouding 25th anniversary commemorations for the 1998 Good Friday peace accord that ended three decades of sectarian bloodshed known as “The Troubles.”

The semi-autonomous Belfast government has been suspended since the DUP, which wants to keep Northern Ireland part of the United Kingdom, walked out more than a year ago to protest a post-Brexit customs border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K.

Under power-sharing rules established by the Good Friday accord, the main British unionist and Irish nationalist parties have to govern together.

The DUP boycott has left Northern Ireland’s 1.9 million people without a government to make key decisions as the cost of living soars and backlogs strain the creaking public health system.

Clinton and ex-U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair, along with President Joe Biden and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, have all stressed the economic benefits of restoring the government — and the potential cost if the crisis persists.

During a visit to Belfast last week, Biden linked American investment in Northern Ireland’s burgeoning tech sector to resolving the political crisis.

A deal struck by the U.K. and the EU in February would remove many of the customs checks that irked the DUP and ease the EU’s role in making rules for Northern Ireland. Politicians in London, Dublin, Brussels and Washington have welcomed the deal, known as the Windsor Framework, but the DUP said it still had concerns.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said at the Belfast conference that the agreement gives Northern Ireland unique access to both the U.K. and EU markets.

“More investors are now eyeing Northern Ireland. This is a unique opportunity for Northern Ireland,” she said.

Kennedy, a scion of the U.S. political dynasty who is Biden’s economic envoy to Northern Ireland, said he wanted to see an increase of the 230 U.S. businesses already operating in Northern Ireland, which collectively employ 30,000 people.

But, he said, businesses “want clarity and certainty.”

“They want to have a good idea of what might change and how and when that might happen. The sooner there are answers to those questions, the better for the Northern Ireland economy,” Kennedy said.

Sunak said the DUP boycott was hurting the party's most cherished cause: keeping Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom.

“We have to show that devolved government within the United Kingdom works for Northern Ireland. ... We need to get the institutions up and running and keep them up and running,” the British prime minister said.

DUP politicians have hit back at the carrot-and-stick messaging. Lawmaker Ian Paisley Jr. told Times Radio it was “moonshine” to suggest “that suddenly there’s going to be another El Dorado over the hill, if we just have an executive (in) Northern Ireland.”

Party leader Jeffrey Donaldson said the DUP would not be “browbeaten into submission” and the agreement was not enough to get the DUP to end its walkout.

Still, many politicians and officials remain optimistic the party will eventually relent — perhaps after local elections on May 18, the first test of voter opinion in Northern Ireland since the DUP began its boycott. The party may get a sense then of whether its hard-line stance has cost or gained votes.

The DUP is renowned for its intransigence, but it has also shown itself to be adaptable. It opposed the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, before eventually changing stance and entering government.

Duncan Morrow, professor of politics at Ulster University in Belfast, said the DUP now had “no allies” and not much room to maneuver.

“The DUP is faced with a huge dilemma,” he said. “Given that they’ve had so much pressure, how do they turn a return to (government) as anything other than a defeat?”