Chris Heaton-Harris has said powersharing is “the surest way” to secure Northern Ireland’s place in the Union, as he said real leadership is about having the courage to say “yes”.
The Northern Ireland Secretary said those who are proud of the region’s place in the Union “should put the Union first” and restore the devolved institutions.
Downing Street has insisted the speech did not represent the Government toughening up its messaging towards the DUP, which is currently blocking the operation of the powersharing institutions at Stormont.
Responding, DUP MLA Emma Little-Pengelly insisted her party would not be pressurised or “bow to presidents and prime ministers” and would only return to Stormont when its concerns over sovereignty about post-Brexit trade were addressed.
The DUP has said it will not participate in the assembly and ministerial executive until its concerns are addressed around the post-Brexit Northern Ireland Protocol – an arrangement the party contends has undermined the region’s place within the UK.
The party has expressed concerns over the Windsor Framework, which the UK agreed with the EU earlier this year in an attempt to reduce the economic barriers on Irish Sea trade and persuade the DUP to call off its Assembly boycott.
Mr Heaton-Harris said the narrative that unionism was not served well by the Good Friday Agreement is “wrong”.
Speaking in the Whitla Hall at Queen’s, he said he has been struck by a narrative that has “become louder in recent years – a narrative that the Agreement struck in 1998 did not achieve great things for unionism”.
“Today, the principle of consent is so often taken for granted but it was an important and hard-won guarantee that settled Northern Ireland to remain as part of the United Kingdom.”
Mr Heaton-Harris said the “simple reality” is that people tend to change the status quo only when the status quo is not working, or people simply stop making the case for it.
“Devolved powersharing institutions created a status quo that those of us who value Northern Ireland’s place in the Union can robustly and successfully promote and celebrate,” he said.
“So let no-one tell you that powersharing is at any way at odds with unionism.
Mr Heaton-Harris said the people of Northern Ireland are demanding better, more responsive public services, greater economic prosperity and a brighter future for their children.
“The biggest threat to Northern Ireland’s place in the Union is failing to deliver on these priorities,” he said.
“I make no apologies for being proud of Northern Ireland’s place in the Union and for wanting it to continue.
“Others who share that view should put the Union first, restore the devolved institutions and get on with the job of delivering for the people of Northern Ireland.”
Mr Heaton-Harris said real leadership is about having the courage to say “yes”, telling the crowd: “Like David Trimble, David Ervine before in 1998, Dr Paisley in 2006, real leadership is about knowing when to say yes and having the courage to do so.”
“We think it is important that the people of Northern Ireland have an up and running, functioning executive,” he said.
“Our priority is ensuring that is delivered, it is something we have been working on before the framework and obviously we believe that the framework provides the right foundation for powersharing to return.”
Ms Little-Pengelly, who also spoke on the second day of the Queen’s conference, insisted her party’s concerns were not manufactured.
“It doesn’t matter if you agree with those grievances,” she said.
“They exist. They’re real. They’re genuine. If they had been listened to two years ago, the institutions would not have collapsed, if the promises made to unionism in Northern Ireland had been kept the institutions would not have collapsed. And I do want there to be hope. We need there to be hope. I want to build a better future for Northern Ireland. That can only happen with inclusion and consensus and us working together and listening to each other, even if we don’t agree with where we are coming from.”
Meanwhile, Ireland’s deputy premier Micheal Martin also called for the return of the Stormont executive, saying the UK Government “stretched themselves” to achieve the Windsor Framework.
“The past few years, with the practicalities of Brexit, have been turbulent for Northern Ireland, and for these islands,” he said.
“I know that turbulence will take some time to settle, that parties need to pause and reflect internally on next steps.
“But I urge all elected officials to take their seats in the assembly and the executive and get to work on the questions of everyday life that matter to the people of Northern Ireland, including healthcare, education, policing, regional imbalances and much more.”
Mr Martin also called on the Northern Ireland parties to recapture the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement.
“Let us recapture and renew that generous spirit of the Agreement,” he said.
“Let’s make the effort again to see this place and see what has happened through the eyes of those we don’t agree with.
“When we do, I am certain that we will recognise the potential of the opportunity before us.
“The potential of a decade of investment and renewal, the potential of our young people when they are given an education and the chance to thrive, potential that we dare not squander.”
In a panel discussion focused on the Good Friday Agreement being a template for resolving global conflict, Mr Sefcovic said “lesson number one” is “respect your partner”.
He also said that the establishment of a strong personal relationship is important, adding that he was happy to have had a strong relationship within a very short period of time with both Foreign Secretary James Cleverly and Mr Heaton-Harris.
The event at the Queen’s University Belfast has seen the participation of major political figures including former US president Bill Clinton, former prime minister Sir Tony Blair and former taoiseach Bertie Ahern.
Later, Mr Clinton is set to give a speech at the Guildhall in Londonderry.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is scheduled to make a closing address to the conference on Wednesday ahead of a dinner event which former prime ministers Boris Johnson and Liz Truss are expected to attend.