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More open dialogue, fewer private dinners needed

Harland & Wolff workers and Irish language activists, Border Communities Against Brexit, legacy campaigners came together at the statue of Edward Carson to protest yesterday as Boris Johnson met with political parties at Stormont House. Picture by Mal McCann

IF Boris Johnson was remotely serious about expediting the restoration of power-sharing, then he was extremely ill-advised to have a private dinner with the DUP.

It was a crass gesture and sent out entirely the wrong message ahead of yesterday's round of meetings with the parties at Stormont.

The SDLP's Nichola Mallon, for example, said such a "cosy relationship" with one party was "damaging our peace process", while Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald said she told Mr Johnson he should not be "the DUP's gopher".

Yesterday's encounters have confirmed the widely-held belief that as far as Northern Ireland is concerned, Mr Johnson's only priority as prime minister is the same as that of his predecessor Theresa May: to keep his Vote Leave cohorts in the DUP on-side because the votes of its 10 MPs are vital if the Conservative government is to limp on.

Nonetheless, it is bewildering that the DUP appears to be at least as committed to a no-deal Brexit as Mr Johnson when Northern Ireland and its citizens will be uniquely exposed to its damaging consequences.

Harland & Wolff workers were among those protesting at Stormont yesterday, their plight evidence of the already-precarious nature of the economy.

Earlier this month, the Department for the Economy published an analysis that a no-deal Brexit could put 40,000 jobs at risk, with workers in agri-food and haulage especially vulnerable.

It is dispiriting that the DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson, generally regarded as one of his party's more reasonable voices, said he could "live with" such rapid unemployment when challenged about how he would feel if that prediction came true.

"Of course I can live with myself. I lived through the Troubles when we lost tens of thousands of jobs... but I voted for Brexit and I want to see that," he told BBC Radio 5 Live, in comments many will regard as irresponsible.

In an irony won't be lost on even casual political observers, his party leader, Arlene Foster, also took an opportunity to take a swipe at the EU for being "belligerent".

It all underlines the urgent need for less bellicose language and more constructive dialogue in Belfast, London, Brussels and Dublin.

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