Boris Johnson’s DUP dinner fails to impress other NI parties
PM’s visit offers no clarity over North’s burning issues: Brexit and Stormont
Boris Johnson declined to talk to the press. Photograph: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg
Boris Johnson’s visit to Stormont as prime minister was an opportunity for all of Northern Ireland’s main political parties to get the measure of him, apart from the DUP, with which he is already on reasonably intimate terms.
For the Conservative Party leader, it was a chance to size up whether the Northern Irish question was capable of any sort of resolution.
The parties had different demands and points to make about Brexit and a united Ireland, but the main puzzle they and Johnson would have been attempting to crack was whether it was possible in the relative short term to bring back the Northern Executive and Assembly.
After dinner with the DUP’s Arlene Foster, Nigel Dodds and Jeffrey Donaldson at the five-star Culloden Hotel in east Belfast on Tuesday night, Johnson spent Wednesday morning at Stormont House, holding bilateral meetings with Sinn Féin, the Ulster Unionist Party, Alliance, the SDLP and finally Foster and Dodds again.
He left at lunchtime, but whether he learned anything from the visit is difficult to determine. The position seems to be, as it has been for the past couple of weeks, that the chief protagonists – the DUP and Sinn Féin – are close to a deal, but that they can’t or won’t make that final leap to reinstate devolution.
And Sinn Féin, along with other parties, were less than impressed with Johnson’s head to head with the DUP leaders on Tuesday night.
Here little detail was disclosed, although the understanding is that the chief focus was reviewing the confidence-and-supply agreement between the DUP and the Tories so that the DUP’s 10 MPs will continue to keep Johnson’s government in power.
The last deal cost the previous prime minister, Theresa May, £1 billion and the expectation is that Foster, Dodds and Donaldson would have been demanding at least that sum again to maintain the agreement.
Foster pointedly spoke about the value of her deal with Theresa May when she addressed the media at the Edward Carson statue at Stormont after meeting Johnson on Tuesday.
“Not any other party that has stood before you today,” she said, “has delivered one penny of money for the people of Northern Ireland. We have delivered that through our confidence-and-supply agreement. We will continue to work for the people of Northern Ireland regardless of their background.”
Still the other parties complained that the special dinner illustrated how Johnson could not be an honest broker because he was in hock to the DUP. Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald made the argument bluntly: the idea that Johnson could be impartial was “frankly laughable”.
At noon on Tuesday, hours before the little row of the Culloden dinner blew up, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, in his telephone conversation with Johnson, also spoke of the need for a straight bat from the British government and its prime minister.
In that conversation he “recalled that the [Belfast] Agreement requires the sovereign government to exercise power with rigorous impartiality on behalf of all the people in full respect for their rights, equality, parity of esteem and just and equal treatment for the identity, ethos and aspirations of both communities”.
All parties – even the DUP with lower decibel emphasis – have warned of the dangers of a crash-out Brexit. Foster said Varadkar should “dial down the rhetoric” and that, with the proper will, a deal could be found that met the concerns of Dublin, Belfast, London and Brussels.
Spelling out the Sinn Féin stance, McDonald said a “disorderly Brexit” must result in a referendum on unity, although she wants one regardless.
For the SDLP, deputy leader Nichola Mallon told Johnson that in the absence of powersharing and in the face of a no-deal Brexit, what was required was British-Irish “joint authority” over Northern Ireland.
Ulster Unionist Party leader Robin Swann called for direct rule from Westminster if there was no devolution agreement.
The DUP said Johnson was unimpressed with the Sinn Féin and SDLP suggestions and that he told Arlene Foster he would never be “neutral” on the union and would never entertain “talk of a Border poll”.
Johnson declined to talk to the press, and apart from a brief word with Sky, whom he told that, of course, he always would act impartially, we got no real sense of his take on proceedings.
But in typical Johnson fashion he lamented to SDLP deputy leader Nichola Mallon that there was too much “doom and gloom” over Brexit, a view with which she assertively disagreed.
There was a lot of talking at Stormont on Wednesday, but at the end of Johnson’s visit there was no clarity on either of the two key questions facing the North: what will happen over Brexit and when will the Executive be restored.