Bill Clinton has expressed optimism that there will be a breakthrough in Northern Ireland’s political deadlock and a restoration of power sharing.
The former US president made the prediction on Tuesday after meeting Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, the leader of the Democratic Unionist party, which holds the key to resolving the crisis.
“I left that meeting more optimistic than I entered it,” Clinton, 76, told the BBC. Rishi Sunak’s post-Brexit deal with the EU had brought a political solution “pretty close”, he said.
“So I expect that, in the not too distant future, the barriers to bringing up the government again will be removed because everybody knows that economically, socially and politically, they would be worse off if they packed it in over the current level of disagreement.”
The comments fuelled speculation Donaldson intends to end a DUP boycott that has paralysed the Stormont assembly and executive for more than a year.
Clinton is in Belfast this week with his wife, Hillary, for a conference at Queen’s University to mark the Good Friday agreement’s 25th anniversary. He shared a platform on Monday with the former British and Irish prime ministers Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern, who exhorted the DUP to revive Stormont.
Donaldson has shunned the conference, prompting criticism from some participants. One, who declined to be named, said it was “shocking” given that George Mitchell, a former US senator who chaired peace talks in the 1990s, had made the trip despite being treated for leukaemia. Mitchell is 89.
Clinton, who helped pave the way for the Good Friday agreement, declined to elaborate on his talks with Donaldson. “I’m here as a friend of the peace process and a friend of hope,” he said.
The DUP collapsed power-sharing to protest against post-Brexit trading arrangements with Great Britain, which it said damaged trade and Northern Ireland’s position in the UK. It welcomed aspects of Sunak’s Windsor framework, that amended the arrangements, but wants further changes.
There is speculation Donaldson could move to restore devolution after local elections on 18 May. This would anger some hardline loyalists and unionists but be welcomed by most people in Northern Ireland as well as London, Dublin, Brussels and Washington.
In a keynote speech to the conference on Tuesday, Chris Heaton-Harris, the Northern Ireland secretary, told the DUP the Stormont impasse posed the “single biggest threat” to Northern Ireland’s place in the UK. He urged unionists to “put the union first, restore the devolved institutions and get on with the job of delivering for the people of Northern Ireland”.
Micheál Martin, Ireland’s foreign minister, swelled the chorus in a speech that said the best way to honour those whose lives were lost or destroyed during the Troubles was to collectively rediscover the spirit that made the 1998 agreement possible.
“The essential next step is for the politicians of Northern Ireland to assume their responsibilities, fill the roles and institutions created by the Good Friday agreement – all of them – and get to work to secure the futures of the young people of Northern Ireland, and the generations to follow,” Martin said.
Clinton is due to return to Derry on Tuesday, the scene of a rapturous visit in 1995, to pay tribute to the late political leaders John Hume and David Trimble, who shared a Nobel peace prize for sealing the Good Friday agreement.
All living former UK prime ministers have been invited to a gala dinner in Northern Ireland on Wednesday to mark the agreement’s anniversary.