Boris Johnson meets Stormont parties as Sinn Féin warn him to stop being DUP 'gopher'

(left to right) DUP leader Arlene Foster, British prime minister Boris Johnson and Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald pictured at Stormont this morning 

BORIS Johnson is meeting Stormont's main parties in Belfast this morning as he makes his first visit to Northern Ireland since becoming prime minister.

The British prime minister dined with DUP leader Arlene Foster and other senior party colleagues after arriving in the north last night.

The event came amid ongoing negotiations aimed at renewing the Conservatives' confidence and supply deal with the unionist party which is keeping Mr Johnson's minority government in power.

Following Sinn Féin's meeting with Mr Johnson, party leader Mary Lou McDonald saidshe told the British prime minister he had to stop being the DUP's "gopher".

Ms McDonald said his stated claim of impartiality was "laughable".

"He tells us he will act with absolute impartiality, we have told him that nobody believes that," she said.

Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald speaking to the media with Sinn Féin Foyle MP Elisha McCallion (second from right) and Sinn Féin deputy leader Michelle O'Neill (far right), after speaking with British prime minister Boris Johnson at Stormont House in Belfast. Picture by Liam McBurney/PA Wire 

"Nobody believes that because there are no grounds to believe there is any kind of impartiality, much less strict impartiality."

She said the confidence and supply deal had "poisoned the groundwater" at Stormont.

"He asked for our advice and we have strongly advised him that to make progress here he needs to ensure that he is not the DUP's gopher, he needs to stop mollycoddling them, he needs to spell out the realities of life to them and put pressure on his unionist colleagues to ensure we can land on an equitable and sustainable agreement," she said.

Ms McDonald said she told Mr Johnson it would be "unthinkable" not to call a border poll in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

"His course of action, which seems to us that he has set the compass for a disorderly and a crash Brexit, we have challenged him very strongly on that policy," she said.

"We set out very clearly that this would be catastrophic for the Irish economy, for Irish livelihoods, for our society, for our politics and for our peace accord.

"We made it clear to him that the extensive planning he tells us he is carrying out in respect of a potential crash Brexit has to include the constitutional question and the issue of a border poll here in Ireland.

Boris Johnson (right) and Secretary of State Julian Smith arrive at Stormont House this morning for talks 

"We have stated to him very clearly that Brexit in any event, but certainly a disorderly Brexit, represents in anybody's language a dramatic change of circumstances on this island and it would be unthinkable in those circumstances that people would not be given the opportunity to decide on our future together."

Ms McDonald accused Mr Johnson of being "complacent" about the damage she said Brexit could inflict on the island of Ireland.

Asked what the prime minister's response was to her call for a border poll, the Sinn Féin leader said: "He obviously takes a different view on Brexit generally and the issue of the Union, no great surprise there.

"I have no doubt that he as a unionist and the British establishment, or elements of it, will rally against any notion of full democracy in Ireland - that position is centuries old.

"He's not in a position to rule it out because it's a provision of the Good Friday Agreement. He describes himself as a student of the Good Friday Agreement, he's fully conversant with its provisions, so he has argued with us a matter of timing I would say, rather than a matter of substance."

Ms McDonald said any move to reintroduce direct rule at Stormont ahead of Brexit would be a "very dangerous escapade in turning the clock back".

DUP leader Arlene Foster rejected criticism of the confidence and supply deal her party has with the Tories.

"Let me be very clear we are not going to apologise for delivering an extra £1 billion for the people of Northern Ireland," she said.

"The fact we have been able to help the health service, the education system, the fact we are putting £150 million into a broadband system which has now been procured. The fact we have helped with roads infrastructure.

"Not any other party that has stood before you today has delivered one penny of money for the people of Northern Ireland, we have delivered that through our confidence and supply agreement and we will continue to work for the people of Northern Ireland, regardless of their background.

"Don't forget this money goes directly to those people in services, through hospital care, we think that is something that should be celebrated and not denigrated in the way it has been done today."

Ms Foster said Mr Johnson told her he would never be neutral on the Union, but would act in a neutral way in the administration of governance in Northern Ireland.

"You shouldn't confuse the two and today I have heard those two matters confused quite regularly," she said.

"He'll never be neutral on the Union and talk of a border poll was not something he was entertaining.

"So we look forward to working with the new prime minister to strengthen the Union."

On confidence and supply, DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds challenged Sinn Féin to rule out becoming a coalition partner in any future Irish government.

"If they criticise that so strongly as being contrary to the Good Friday Agreement then clearly they will not want to have anything to do with a future Dublin government, which they describe as the co-guarantors of the agreement, or perhaps they are being somewhat selective in their approach to this particular issue," he said.

Ms Foster said the EU had to show willingness to strike a "sensible" Brexit deal.

"What we are focused on is supporting the Prime Minister in trying to get a deal," she said.

"It is very clear it is the backstop that has caused all of the difficulties with the Withdrawal Agreement and therefore that needs to be the subject of focused negotiations to deal with it and therefore we will support the Prime Minister in doing that."

The DUP has previously indicated a willingness to accept a backstop mechanism if it was time-limited.

Ms Foster said the prime minister had now said the Withdrawal Agreement and backstop were both dead.

"We have to find a different way forward and that's what we need to do and that's what we will support the prime minister in doing," she said.

DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds poured cold water on the prospect of a border poll.

He said: "Leo Varadkar is in breach of the Belfast agreement by talking that up.

"The reality is that the conditions are not met and those who create this hysteria about it are actually running contrary to the agreement.

"Let's get real here, the idea that many unionists will turn around and vote for a united Ireland on the basis of the current developments, I think, is something that is not reflected in the reality of people on the ground."

SDLP deputy leader Nichola Mallon said Mr Johnson only delivered bluff, bluster and stock responses.

She said the prime minister was "hurtling" the region toward a "catastrophic" no-deal Brexit.

"We went into this meeting concerned that he would have a limited understanding of the complexities and the fragility of this place and those concerns have been confirmed," she said.

"It is very clear he views and understands the situation through the eyes of the DUP."

Ms Mallon added: "He just retorted with Brexit nearly every question you asked him, nearly every point you made he gave us bluff and bluster around Brexit."

She claimed Mr Johnson's "wining and dining" of the DUP had set the wrong tone for the visit.

"It sends a message that he has a cosy relationship with one party here in Northern Ireland and that's damaging to our peace process," she said.

After concluding his meeting with the five parties, Mr Johnson left Stormont House just before 12.30pm.

As his cavalcade swept out of the estate, protesting Harland and Wolff shipyard workers shouted at him to save their jobs.

Critics have claimed the British government is unable to act as an impartial mediator in talks to restore the crisis-hit institutions due to the controversial Westminster deal with the DUP.

Mr Johnson denied a conflict of interest as he arrived at Stormont House this morning.

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"It's all there in the Good Friday Agreement, we believe in complete impartiality and that's what we are going to observe," he said.

"But the crucial thing is to get this Stormont government up and running again."

The Tory leader, who has already made trips to Scotland and Wales on successive days this week, is expected to stress the need to get the devolved institutions up-and-running again.

DUP Leader Arlene Foster during an interview while waiting for the arrival of British prime minister Boris Johnson, in front of Carson's statue at Stormont House in Belfast. Picture by Liam McBurney/PA Wire 

He was joined at Stormont by newly-appointed Secretary of State Julian Smith.

Speaking this morning, Mr Johnson said: "It's great to be here in Northern Ireland.

"Clearly the people in Northern Ireland have been without a government, without Stormont, for two years and six months so my prime focus this morning is to do everything I can to help that get up and running again because I think that's profoundly in the interests of people here, of all the citizens here in Northern Ireland."

On Brexit, Mr Johnson said: "The crucial thing to stress is, I obviously attach huge importance to the letter, spirit of the Belfast Good Friday Agreement and will be insisting on that."

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Asked how impartial he could be given the Tory links to the DUP and the private dinner he attended with the party's politicians last night, he said: "It's all there in the Good Friday Agreement. We believe in complete impartiality and that's what we are going to observe.

"But the crucial thing is to get this Stormont government up and running again."

Prior to this morning's meetings, Ms McDonald branded Brexit a "piece of astonishing political and economic self-harm".

She told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "I think it's very important that the British system sets out very clearly for all of us what it and they would understand to be the point of threshold, the trigger point at which a border poll or a referendum would be called ... Well, I think some of the thresholds have been met."

On no-deal, she added: "In the event of a hard Brexit and a crash Brexit, I don't know for the life of me how anybody could sustain an argument that things remain the same...

"I don't know how Britain could crash this part of Ireland out of the EU with all of the attendant harm and damage economically and politically and, with a straight face, suggest to any of us who live on this island that we should not be given the democratic opportunity as per the Good Friday Agreement to decide our future.

"I think that would be quite scandalous."

Ms McDonald said Brexit had "changed the entire political dynamic".

She told Today: "I can say this without fear of contradiction that, for everybody across society, Brexit has raised fundamental questions around the wisdom and the sustainability of the partition of our island which we've lived with now since the 1920s.

"It's changed the entire political dynamic, it's changed the parameters of the conversation and it's changed minds."

DUP chief whip Jeffrey Donaldson said the current chances of a no-deal Brexit were "significant".

He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "Well I think given the response of the Irish government in particular who I believe are key to this issue of addressing UK concerns about the backstop, I think the prospect of a no-deal is significant."

Asked about the warnings of 40,000 job losses in Northern Ireland, he said that was at the "very high end of the scale" and he was not convinced a no-deal would result in that type of outcome.

He added: "We do recognise that no deal is not good in the short term for our economy in Northern Ireland and to be clear it's not something we're working towards. We've always been consistent in our approach on Brexit which is we want to see the UK leaving the EU with a deal, but the deal that's on the table at the moment is clearly unacceptable, not just to us, but to a majority on three occasions in the House of Commons."

Mr Donaldson said: "We are clear that the problem with the Withdrawal Agreement is the backstop and it's not just a problem for Northern Ireland, it's a problem for the UK as a whole and we want to see a more flexible and pragmatic approach taken by the EU, we still believe it's possible to get a deal and we are urging the EU to step forward and to discuss with the UK Government how we can achieve that.

"And I think the prime minister is right to take a tough line on this issue."

He said he did not believe that people in Northern Ireland were going to vote in favour of a united Ireland.

He said: "I think the prime minister is right, taking a softer approach to the EU didn't work for the last prime minister and I think that the line that the prime minister is taking now is one that is more likely to get us to a deal in October than the previous approach."

Fianna Fáil foreign affairs spokesman Niall Collins said the "hardening" of Mr Johnson's rhetoric "concerns us".

He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "The backstop is necessary for a number of reasons as we know, it's necessary to protect the all Ireland economy, it's necessary to protect the Good Friday Agreement to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland and all the consequences that would flow and will flow if we have a border on the island of Ireland, including the potential damage to our peace process and potential return to violence."

His party's approach, he said, had been "steadfast", adding: "The fact that Boris Johnson has now assumed the position of Prime Minister doesn't change anything for us.

"Obviously we have been concerned about the hardening of his rhetoric, he seems to have been appealing to his base and he has turned the conversation about Brexit into a no-deal and that concerns us."

Mr Collins said: "There can't be any pre-conditions to talks between Boris Johnson and the EU leaders here. We have negotiated with our European colleagues a Withdrawal Agreement with the British Government and that is the agreement within which we have to work.

"And any amount of, I suppose, debate or seeking to unravel that just simply isn't the case, there's too much at stake."

The Good Friday Agreement he said "is integral to the whole Brexit process here and cannot just be discarded or dismissed quite lightly... these things are paramount and have to be respected."

Workers from the under-threat Harland and Wolff shipyard have arrived at Stormont, demanding a meeting with the Prime Minister.

With the famous Belfast yard days from falling into administration, the workers have called for Government intervention, including potential nationalisation.

The Harland and Wolff staff chanted and sang during a colourful protest outside Stormont House.

It emerged yesterday that the new British prime minister clashed with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar over the backstop in their first phone call since Mr Johnson moved into Number 10 last week.

The prime minister told the Fine Gael leader that he will approach Brexit negotiations in "a spirit of friendship" but reiterated that any fresh deal must see the backstop abolished, Downing Street said.

But Mr Varadkar told him that the emergency measure to prevent a hard border on the island was "necessary as a consequence" of UK decisions, the Dublin government said.

The call on Tuesday came after the pound fell to a two-year low as Mr Johnson's new government hardened its tone over the likelihood of a no-deal.

Their first discussion came after allegations that the Tory leader was snubbing the taoiseach.

Number 10's account of the call said Mr Johnson warned that the UK will be leaving the European Union by the October 31 deadline "no matter what".

Dublin said Mr Varadkar reiterated the EU position that the withdrawal agreement would not be renegotiated.

"On Brexit, the taoiseach emphasised to the prime minister that the backstop was necessary as a consequence of decisions taken in the UK and by the UK government," a spokesman said.

"Alternative arrangements could replace the backstop in the future, as envisaged in the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration on the future relationship, but thus far satisfactory options have yet to be identified and demonstrated."

The taoiseach also invited Mr Johnson to Dublin to "further their respective analyses on Brexit", Dublin said.

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