BRITISH Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has urged unionists to return to power-sharing, saying a refusal to do so 'will not bolster the cause of unionism'.
Mr Sunak was speaking at Queen's University in Belfast on Wednesday, where he was giving the closing speech at a three-day conference marking 25 years since the Good Friday Agreement.
While he acknowledged unionists' concerns over the impact of post-Brexit trading arrangements, he said the return of Stormont was 'the right thing to do for our union'.
Sunak 'a proud unionist'
"I want to speak directly for a moment to the representatives of unionism, who include many diverse voices and whose concerns with the Protocol we have focused on addressing," said Mr Sunak.
"I urge you to work with us to get Stormont up and running again.
"That's the right thing to do on its own terms and I'm convinced that it's also the right thing to do for our union.
"I am a proud unionist — we believe passionately that Northern Ireland is stronger within the UK and the UK is stronger with Northern Ireland within it.
"But we must also build support beyond those of us who already identify as unionists.
"To do that, we have to show that devolved government within the United Kingdom works for Northern Ireland.
"The fact that the institutions have been down for nine of the last 25 years should be a source of profound concern.
"Over the long term that will not bolster the cause of unionism — I believe that deeply.
"So we need to get the institutions up and running — and keep them up and running."
'Extraordinary and precious legacy'
The DUP, the largest unionist party in Northern Ireland, has blocked the formation of an Executive since last May's Assembly Election.
It cited concerns over the Northern Ireland Protocol, namely that it effectively created a sea border between Britain and Northern Ireland.
Mr Sunak said he appreciated the frustrations of unionists but urged them to look at the success achieved by the Good Friday Agreement and to build on its legacy.
"History reminds us that nothing in Northern Ireland has ever been achieved by trying to get round one community or another," he said.
"So any conversation about reform can only begin once the institutions are up and running again and if it attracts widespread consent.
"The Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement left us an extraordinary and precious legacy.
"When we look back in 25 years from now, surely we should aspire for our legacy to be nothing less than this — that the institutions have been up and running for every single year, because our focus must be on the future."