Saturday 24 August 2019

Hugh O'Connell: 'Boris's dinner date with DUP does little to ease tensions in North'

 

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 Britain's prime minister Boris Johnson at Stormont House in Belfast. Photo: Liam McBurney/PA Wire
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 Britain's prime minister Boris Johnson at Stormont House in Belfast. Photo: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

Hugh O'Connell in Stormont

As starts go, this was a pretty terrible one for Boris Johnson in Northern Ireland. Marking exactly a week as UK prime minister, Mr Johnson arrived for talks at Stormont House yesterday morning having already annoyed four out of the five main political parties by dining with the DUP leadership at the Culloden Estate and Spa - a five star luxury hotel overlooking Belfast Lough - the night before.

Even Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann had misgivings, telling reporters on the way into meet Mr Johnson that the "optics were not good". This, from the leader of a party ideologically aligned with Mr Johnson's, was most telling.

In fact, it appeared that everyone except Mr Johnson and the DUP thought the dinner was a bad idea.

One-by-one, in front of Stormont's Parliament Buildings and the imposing statue of Dublin-born unionist Edward Carson, the leaders of Sinn Féin, the Alliance and the SDLP excoriated Mr Johnson and his government's approach to Brexit in the week since he took Downing Street. Reading between the lines, it was clear that in behind-closed-doors talks they had all set out their positions about the damage that would be caused by a no-deal Brexit.

In response Mr Johnson had offered little by way of new thinking or an appreciation for the realities of a no-deal for Northern Ireland.

His predecessor Theresa May was widely reported to have decided last year, following a visit to the North, that no-deal could not be countenanced given the devastating impact it could have on the region. Mr Johnson does not appear to share this view - at least not yet. This is probably because his brief visit to Belfast did not involve any meetings with businesses in the region or, more importantly, a trip to the Border.

Instead he came to listen to the politicians who are as intransigent as ever. For example, DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson, who was at the much-criticised dinner the night before, said it was "hypocritical" for the SDLP to complain when it was aligned with Fianna Fáil, a party in a confidence and supply arrangement with Fine Gael in the south. "Are you seriously suggesting we can't talk to someone with whom we have an arrangement?" he said.

'Whataboutery' remains alive and well in Belfast.

Elsewhere, whilst Ms McDonald and deputy leader Michelle O'Neill had been inside meeting Mr Johnson, a number of Sinn Féin politicians protested outside. Mr Johnson defended himself against claims of partiality and said it was crucial to get the Assembly and Executive running again.

But by the time his convoy left before lunchtime - earlier than had been expected - there was no evidence that the parties were any closer to restoring devolution.

If anything, they seemed further apart than ever before with the new prime minister's brief visit doing little to move the dial.

Irish Independent

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