Terrorists’ plots in Northern Ireland serve as a “stark reminder of the fragility of peace” in the historically troubled region, Chris Heaton-Harris has said on the anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.
Twenty-five years on from the signing of the landmark accord that largely ended decades of violence known as The Troubles, the UK's Northern Ireland Secretary warned of dissident groups working to “drag us all back to the dark old days.”
His warning came after police in the region foiled a plot by the New IRA to disrupt commemorations attended by US President Joe Biden, former president Bill Clinton and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.
Officers recovered an old firearm in searches in Derry, the second-largest city in Northern Ireland, and arrested a prominent republican last week, as preparations for the events were under way. Both were connected to a planned bomb attack, the Belfast Telegraph reported.
Mr Heaton-Harris said Britons across the four UK nations are fortunate that their children do not have any direct experience of The Troubles. But he said forces are operating in the shadows to try to break the hard-won peace.
Writing in The Telegraph, he said the peace achieved by the Good Friday Agreement must not be taken for granted “as recent events have demonstrated that a small number of people who want to drag us all back to the dark old days still exist.”
“Recent dissident republican attacks are a stark reminder of this,” he continued. “Though the reaction from local communities speaks volumes. They are unified, categorical in their conviction that any abhorrent attempts to undermine and disrupt the peace has no place in Northern Ireland.”
The eyes of the world will be on Northern Ireland this week as President Biden jets in from Washington DC for a historic visit. The Democrat leader has made much of his Irish ancestry throughout his decades-long political career. He has said if the terms of the Good Friday Agreement are not respected by the UK in the post-Brexit process, a US-UK trade deal is off the table.
Mr Heaton-Harris’s comments come as pressure builds on politicians in Northern Ireland to restore power-sharing, an arrangement established under the Good Friday Agreement.
Since February 2022, the Democratic Unionist party (DUP) has boycotted power-sharing to protest against post-Brexit trade arrangements for Northern Ireland. DUP MPs argue that the region’s place within the UK is being undermined.
While the UK government has repeatedly urged both sides to restart power-sharing, Mr Heaton-Harris said no one could put a timeline on it.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour programme: “Anybody who is predicting a date by which the executive would go back in Northern Ireland would be someone who can also sell you a four-leaf clover. No one knows — deadlines are deadly in Northern Ireland terms.”
The Prime Minister used the anniversary to call for a swift return of power-sharing.
Mr Sunak hailed the “difficult decisions” and “political imagination” of politicians in Northern Ireland 25 years ago. The GFA saw Irish nationalists and pro-Union politicians work together following decades of strife and violence between their respective communities.
“So we must get on with the business of governance,” he said in a statement on Monday, ahead of talks to get Stormont running again intensifying.
Mr Sunak said there is a need to “recommit to redoubling our efforts” to deliver on the promise made when the deal was signed on April 10, 1998.
“As we look forward, we will celebrate those who took difficult decisions, accepted compromise, and showed leadership — showing bravery, perseverance and political imagination,” he said.
“We commemorate those who are no longer with us and the many who lost their lives by trying to prevent violence and protect the innocent. And we give thanks to them as we reflect on the new generations that have grown up and continue to grow in a world in which peace and prosperity has prevailed.
“While it is time to reflect on the solid progress we have made together, we must also recommit to redoubling our efforts on the promise made in 1998 and the agreements that followed.”
That vision, he said, is of “economic opportunity, prosperity, and stability”.
“My mission, duty and responsibility as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom is to deliver for people in Northern Ireland.
“We stand ready to work with our partners in the Irish government and the local parties to ensure that the institutions are up and running again as soon as possible.
“There is work to be done.”