I learned about complexities of Northern Ireland from university room-mate – PM

The Prime Minister has spoken of his passion for peace in Northern Ireland, revealing he first came to understand some of the region’s complexities from his university room-mate in 1998.

Rishi Sunak shared accommodation with a student from Omagh at Oxford University in the same year the Good Friday/Belfast peace accord was signed, and also the year that the Co Tyrone town was devastated by a dissident republican bomb which killed 29 people and injured hundreds more.

During a visit to a Coca-Cola bottling plant in Co Antrim on Tuesday, he opened his address to business leaders by saying he was thinking about and praying for DCI John Caldwell, who remains in hospital after being shot by dissidents in Omagh last week.

In response to a point raised about how divisive Brexit’s Northern Ireland Protocol has been for politics in the region, Mr Sunak said he believes the Windsor Framework restores the balance which the protocol disrupted.

Devolved government in Northern Ireland has been in flux for more than a year, with the DUP refusing to participate in the Assembly until government took action on its concerns around the protocol.

Anger at the protocol placing a border in the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and Great Britain has also sparked violence, with loyalist rioting in 2021.

Mr Sunak went on to explain to business leaders how he first came to understand Northern Ireland from getting to know his university room-mate, who he said he remains very close friends with to this day.

He said: “I went to university in 1998, so the time of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, that’s when I became an adult, my room-mate at university was from Omagh, and I came from Southampton, I didn’t know anyone very well from Northern Ireland, he, as it turned out, didn’t really know any Indian people, so we spent a lot of time getting to know each other and learning about each other’s backgrounds.

“It was eye-opening to me how he had grown up, what he had grown up having to deal with, and live with. I’m passionately committed to making sure that the Good Friday Agreement works because it brought peace and stability to Northern Ireland, and that is so precious, and we are reminded of how precious just in the past week.”

Rishi Sunak holds a Q&A session with local business leaders
Rishi Sunak holds a Q&A session with local business leaders during a visit to Coca-Cola plant in Co Antrim (Liam McBurney/PA)

He went on to describe how he believes the new protocol deal restores that balance and how he has spent “time, personal attention and care” on the issue.

Mr Sunak said: “The Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, if it’s about anything, it’s about respecting that balance, it’s about respecting the aspirations and identities of all the communities in Northern Ireland so we can move beyond division and put it behind us, and move forward together.

“It did that very well but the protocol disrupted it, which is why it needed resolving, that’s why I spent so much time, personal attention and care on this issue. It’s why I passionately believe that, yesterday, the Windsor Framework restores balance.

“It means that things can flow freely around the UK internal market as they should because we are one country and that should be easy, it means we protect Northern Ireland’s place in the union so that if you’re living in Northern Ireland it looks, feels and is the same as if you’re anywhere else in the country and have the same benefits, and crucially it restores sovereignty to the people and institutions so you are in control of your destiny because that is what is right.”