Boris Johnson clashed with Sinn Fein in tense talks at Stormont today as he was accused of being ‘complacent’ about the peace process.
On his first visit to Northern Ireland, the PM said he would honour the ‘letter and spirit’ of the Good Friday Agreement as he pushes through the UK’s departure from the EU.
But he faces fury after again insisting that Brexit must happen by the end of October, with or without a deal.
Speaking after her discussions with Mr Johnson, Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald said he viewed the island of Ireland as ‘collateral damage’ and warned that a referendum on reunification was looming.
‘There is no doubt that Boris Johnson’s first priority coming to Ireland is his interest, Tory interest, British interests, as he sees them, and it seems to me that he is quite complacent at the idea of Ireland being the collateral damage.’
Mr Johnson has been holding talks with the province’s political leaders at Stormont as he tries to break the deadlock that has crashed powersharing.
As he arrived for the meetings this morning, Mr Johnson said he would be appealing for the parties to restore the powersharing executive – which collapsed more than two years ago.
Boris Johnson was greeted by Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith (left) as he arrived at Stormont today vowing to abide by the Good Friday Agreement in the Brexit process
Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald said Mr Johnson’s Brexit policy was a ‘piece of astonishing political and economic self-harm’, and would trigger a referendum on unification of Ireland
Boris Johnson (pictured arriving at Stormont today) will hold talks with Northern Ireland’s political leaders as he pleads for them to break the deadlock that has crashed powersharing
DUP leader Arlene Foster (pictured in Belfast today) said the confidence and supply agreement with the Tories remains in place
In a tense call with Irish PM Leo Varadkar yesterday, Mr Johnson made clear that the EU must agree to scrap the hated backstop – designed to avoid a hard border if no other solution can be found – for negotiations to re-start.
Families of people killed during the Troubles are planning to protest on the Stormont estate while the premier is holding his meetings.
The pressure is ramping up on all sides with just 92 days left until Brexit is due to happen.
Mr Johnson seemed to underscore his determination to ‘play chicken’ with the EU yesterday by posing with poultry on a farm in Wales.
However, he also said the UK will leave the bloc’s single market and customs union ‘in the next couple of years’ – suggesting he has still not given up on a managed exit that would include a transition period.
What will happen during the PM’s first months in power?
Today: Boris Johnson is in Northern Ireland where he is holding talks with the parties in a bid to restore powersharing.
Tomorrow: Brecon and Radnorshire by-election.
Tory candidate Chris Davies is seeking to regain the seat he was ousted from by a recall petition triggered in the wake of his conviction for submitting false expenses claims. If he fails, the new prime minister’s working majority in the Commons will be cut to just three.
August 24: G7 Summit in Biarritz. The new prime minister’s first appearance at a major global summit.
Donald Trump will be among the world leaders at the gathering, potentially providing the opportunity for a meeting with the controversial US president in an effort to highlight the importance of the special relationship and a future trade deal.
September: The UN General Assembly meeting in New York will provide another opportunity for the new prime minister to appear on the global stage and set out their vision for the country’s place in the world. –
September 29 to October 2: Conservative Party Conference.
The gathering in Manchester will be a key test of the new Tory leader’s ability to unite the party and provides a platform to use their closing speech to address the nation.
October 17-18: EU summit. This is the last schedule meeting of EU leaders before the UK is due to leave the bloc – although an emergency gathering could be called before or afterwards.
October 31: The deadline for reaching a Brexit deal.
Unless there is a further extension, this will be the UK’s last day as a member of the European Union and it will leave, with or without an agreement.
The PM has been hold bilateral meetings with the five main parties at Stormont this morning, having dined with the DUP last night.
Speaking as he arrived, Mr Johnson said: ‘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.’
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.’
Asked how impartial he could be given the Tory links to the DUP, 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.’
DUP leader Arlene Foster said today that the confidence and supply agreement with the Tories remains in place. Talks are ongoing about renewing the deal, but Ms Foster insisted it was ‘not just all about money, it’s about giving the government security, it’s about delivering on Brexit’.
She said Mr Johnson was taking the right line on Brexit. ‘The backstop has been the continuing and fundamental flaw within the WA,’ she said.
‘We very much hope our new PM will deal with the issue. He will get across to those in the EU and Dublin that they cannot break up the UK, because that is essentially what the backstop was doing.’
Ms Foster said the backstop was ‘running a coach and horses’ through the Good Friday Agreement because it did not meet the principle of consent.
Asked after the talks what the Prime Minister’s response was to her call for a border poll, Ms McDonald 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.’
Mrs McDonald said any move to reintroduce direct rule at Stormont ahead of Brexit would be a ‘very dangerous escapade in turning the clock back’.
Earlier, 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.’
People who live along the Irish border held placards outside Stormont as the talks went on.
Declan Fearon from Border Communities Against Brexit said they were protesting to tell the Prime Minister that it was ‘nonsense’ to believe that after a hard Brexit there would be no disruption to their daily lives.
He said: ‘We are certainly not going to sit back and allow it to happen.
‘We are adamant that there can be no reinstatement of the border and the vast majority of people who live in this country want to remain in the customs union.’
Steel worker and employee representative Joe Passmore said the workers had decided to come to Mr Johnson, given he had declined an invite to visit the shipyard on Wednesday morning.
‘What we are asking Boris is nationalise our yard, we want him to help us get through this sticky period and keep this place open long enough so that eventually the orders can start flowing again and we can stand on our own two feet again,’ he said.
‘We need that breathing space, Boris, and we need it now.’
He added: ‘Our hands are tied. Boris – untie our hands and give us a chance.’
Northern Ireland has been without a devolved government for two-and-a-half years, with hamstrung civil servants running under pressure public services amid a reluctance by the Government to re-introduce direct rule.
Stormont’s two main parties – the DUP and Sinn Fein – remain at loggerheads over a series of long-standing disputes, with a series of talks initiatives aimed at securing a resolution having ended in failure.
Mr Johnson’s visit to Stormont comes amid deadlock in the latest talks process.
Ahead of the visit, Mr Johnson said the region had been without proper governance ‘for much, much too long’.
A smattering of protests were being held outside Stormont as the PM held his talks inside
Mr Johnson’s convoy pulled up at Stormont House near Belfast at around 8.15am this morning
He said he would do everything in his power to help the parties reach agreement.
Mr Johnson seemed to underscore his determination to ‘play chicken’ with the EU yesterday by posing with poultry on a farm in Wales
‘The people of Northern Ireland have now been without an executive and assembly for two years and six months – put simply this is much, much too long,’ he said.
‘Northern Ireland’s citizens need and deserve the executive to get up and running again as soon as possible, so that locally accountable politicians can take decisions on the issues that really matter to local people.
‘I’m pleased to meet each of Northern Ireland’s party leaders today to stress that I am going to do everything in my power to make the ongoing talks to restore devolution a success.’
Mr Johnson arrived in Northern Ireland on Tuesday evening when he dined with senior members of the DUP to discuss the renewal of his Government’s confidence and supply deal with the unionist party at Westminster.
In a tense call with Irish PM Leo Varadkar (pictured at Galway races this week), Mr Johnson made clear that the EU must agree to scrap the hated backstop for negotiations to re-start
Ms Foster, deputy leader Nigel Dodds and party whip Sir Jeffrey Donaldson attended last night dinner with the Prime Minister.
The DUP’s 10 MPs have propped up the minority Government since the 2017 general election – an arrangement that delivered a £1 billion boost in public spending in Northern Ireland.
New Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith did not attend.
It is understood his absence was designed to underline that the engagement was about the confidence and supply deal, not the powersharing dispute.
The focus will shift to the Stormont logjam this morning.
The last DUP/Sinn Fein-led powersharing coalition imploded in January 2017 when the late Martin McGuinness quit as Sinn Fein deputy first minister amid a row about a botched green energy scheme.
The fallout over the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) was soon overtaken by disputes over the Irish language, same-sex marriage and the toxic legacy of the Troubles.
Mr Johnson’s visit is his first to Northern Ireland as Prime Minister.
It comes following visits to Scotland, Wales and cities across England earlier this week.
He previously announced that the Mid South West Growth Deal in Northern Ireland will receive a share of £300million new funding, to help boost business and enhance opportunities for people in the region.