"It is no exaggeration to say that Northern Ireland has a special relationship with the United States. Over many generations, our people have left an indelible mark on the politics, industry and academia of that country and in many ways we share the values and traditions of American society in 2023.
President Biden’s visit may have been fleeting but I felt it was important to recognise that his speech had a welcome renewal of Northern Ireland’s ties with the United States. It was also a timely reminder, despite present challenges, of the distance our society has travelled over the past twenty-five years.
Whilst the predominant focus has been the anniversary of the Belfast Agreement, the pomp and pageantry of a Presidential visit must not detract from the reality that preserving the principles of progress is more pivotal to Northern Ireland’s future than any date in the calendar or a single speech.
In any divided society, progress can only be achieved through consensus. In Northern Ireland that means operating political arrangements that both unionists and nationalists support.
It was a grave mistake to foist the Protocol upon our community without the buy-in of a single Unionist MLA and it would be foolhardy to repeat that mistake in the absence of further progress which fully restores Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom.
Only arrangements that unionists as well as nationalists can support, will provide the solid foundations to enable us to move forward together. There will only be a durable and stable return to devolution if all traditions are respected. That is our goal.
The same parties that claimed every word of the Belfast Agreement – and those not actually in it – were sacrosanct, are now conveniently suggesting it is a living document that opens the door for institutional change to exclude unionists. They talk up reform but what they really mean is a return to majority rule. To a system of government where unionists are sidelined and ignored.
Rather than removing the roadblocks to building a shared and more prosperous future, this would represent the death-knell of power-sharing. The politics of exclusion is a road to nowhere.
Whilst the Alliance Party has been quick to urge the train to leave without unionists on board, such an approach is not how to heal a divided society. Instead the Alliance Party should get on board with calls to find future arrangements on the Protocol that all communities can support.
The past week cast our minds back to the many thousands of our ancestors from all classes and creeds who travelled together on the perilous journey to the ‘New World’ with the common desire to secure a better future for themselves and their families. They faced enormous challenges and uncertainty but did so together, with one destination in view.
That same spirit should be applied to our politics today. If we are to defend and build on hard-won progress in Northern Ireland, we must get this right. Ensuring our children and grandchildren have the best chance to succeed is an ambition that unites us all but it can only be realised if there is a solid foundation on which to build. That is why cross-community consensus where unionists as well as nationalists feel comfortable remains the only route to clearing the Protocol debris and ushering in a stable and sustainable return to devolution."