LONDON (AP) — Northern Ireland’s politicians have got the message. Some of them don’t like it.
Unionist lawmakers have bristled as, with a united voice, leaders of the U.K., the EU and two U.S. presidents 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 told a conference in Belfast on Wednesday.
It was the latest in a series 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.
At anniversary events, architects of peace including former President Bill 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.
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 on the 230 U.S. businesses already operating in Northern Ireland, collectively employing 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,” he said.
DUP politicians have hit back at the carrot-and-stick economic message. 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.”
A deal struck by the U.K. and the EU in February will remove many of the customs checks that irked the DUP and ease the bloc’s role in making rules for Northern Ireland. The deal has been welcomed by politicians in London, Dublin, Brussels and Washington.
But Donaldson says that is 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 hardline 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 for 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?”