Former US President Bill Clinton during his speech to the University College Dublin on the eve of the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Monday April 9, 2018. See PA story ULSTER GoodFriday. Photo credit should read: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Bill Clinton: 'The further you get away from that the easier it is to take the absence of bad for granted and to live in this purgatory we’re in now' © PA

Bill Clinton has urged political leaders in Northern Ireland to revive their collapsed government, saying there were limits to the deadlock that has left the region in political paralysis on the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday peace deal.

Fifteen months of political vacuum after a power-sharing agreement between the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Féin broke down have put sharp pressures on the accord, which ended three decades of sectarian conflict and led the IRA and pro-British loyalist paramilitary groups to halt their violent campaigns

The former US president, whose envoy George Mitchell chaired marathon talks in 1998 that led to the agreement, called for a fresh compromise as he said the progress achieved under the deal should not be taken for granted. “The Irish peace was born out of weariness of children dying — and of lost chances,” Mr Clinton told an audience at University College Dublin.

“The further you get away from that the easier it is to take the absence of bad for granted and to live in this purgatory we’re in now. It’s a big mistake. There is a limit to the elasticity of inertia, or paralysis,” he said.

“No one will drop off the face of the Earth with any of the reasonable compromises that have been discussed. The only thing that would be calamitous would be to let the whole thing die. To confine ourselves to purgatory or go back to hell instead of going into a future.”

Mr Clinton’s intervention came as the leaders who brokered the Good Friday Agreement spoke out ahead of the anniversary on Tuesday to call for a rapid restoration of the region’s government.

Bertie Ahern, the former Irish premier who signed the agreement with British prime minister Tony Blair, said it should not take long to restore the region’s executive. “This should all be resolved in six weeks, I cannot see why it should drag on,” said Mr Ahern. He added that London and Dublin should bring all Northern Irish parties into the talks and not just the DUP and Sinn Féin.

Mr Ahern said: “The big success of 1998 was that it was an inclusive and comprehensive process, with the two governments working very closely together with all the political parties. They need to be doing that again. “The issues that are outstanding now — I’m not saying they’re insignificant or small — but if you compare them with the big-ticket items of 20 years ago it must be very do-able to deal with them.”

He added: “What’s necessary now is that same engagement, determination and focus that was there 20 years ago. That needs to be re-enacted. Like anything, it won’t happen without government engagement.”

Mr Mitchell, the retired US senator who was Mr Clinton’s special adviser on Ireland, paid tribute to the Northern Irish leaders who struck the 1998 deal. “In dangerous and difficult circumstances, after lifetimes devoted to conflict, they summoned the courage and vision needed to reach agreement, at great risk to themselves, their families, their political careers,” he said in a speech in Dublin.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair (R) US Senator George Mitchell (C) and Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern smiling after they signed the historic agreement for peace in Northern Ireland.
US senator and Northern Ireland envoy George Mitchel, centre, with Irish taoiseach Bertie Ahern and British prime minister Tony Blair after the signing of th Good Friday Agreement in 1998 © PA

With the future of the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic a flashpoint in Brexit talks, Mr Mitchell said he hoped the current generation of leaders in Belfast, Dublin, London and Brussels would look back 20 years to what their predecessors did “as they today reflect on their responsibilities”.

“The current problems in Northern Ireland are difficult and serious, and must be resolved. But, at the same time, we should not hold Northern Ireland to a higher standard than we apply to others,” he said.

“Every society, including the US, the UK and Ireland, has social and political problems. All of us must do what we can to help the people of Northern Ireland resolve theirs.”

The dominant unionist and Irish republican parties are divided over Irish language rights, gay marriage and Brexit. The DUP backs Britain’s withdrawal from the EU while Sinn Féin wants special status for Northern Ireland to remain in the bloc while the rest of the UK leaves.

Mr Ahern’s remarks echo those of Mr Blair, who said over the weekend that Theresa May, UK prime minister, should use her political authority to help end the stalemate that has suspended the political institutions set up under the Good Friday deal. Mrs May relies on the votes of the DUP’s Westminster MPs in a “confidence and supply” deal reached after the loss of her parliamentary majority in a disastrous election last year.

Mr Blair has insisted it remains possible to revive power-sharing, saying that required the “full focus” of the UK government. “At a certain point the authority of the prime minister is necessary in order to get people to move and to come into some form of alignment,” he told the BBC.

A UK government spokesman responded by saying London’s support for the 1998 deal remained steadfast. “As we mark the 20th anniversary of the agreement, we are totally committed to the restoration of the devolved institutions, working intensively with the parties and the Irish government to achieve that.”

On Monday in Belfast, three loyalist paramilitary groups took steps to distance themselves from criminality, promising to support the rule of law and expel members who engage in crime.

In a joint statement the Red Hand Commando, the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) and the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) “emphatically” condemned crime. Despite ending their paramilitary campaigns, some loyalist activists have long been linked to drug crime and racketeering.

“Individuals who use criminality to serve their own interests at the expense of loyalist communities are an affront to the true principles of loyalism,” the groups said.

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