BORIS JOHNSON has been warned not to be the DUP’s gopher as he faced claims of bias on his first visit to Northern Ireland as prime minister.
Mr Johnson was accused of undermining the government’s stated impartiality in the region after holding a private dinner with senior DUP figures on the eve of his first substantive intervention in the powersharing impasse at Stormont.
The Conservative leader, who relies on the support of the DUP’s 10 MPs for a Commons majority, met with all the main Stormont parties in Belfast today to discuss a governance crisis that has left the region shorn of a devolved executive for two and a half years.
Brexit was also high on the agenda during his bilateral engagements with the main parties.
Some of the politicians used the encounters to raise concerns about his government’s confidence and supply deal with the DUP, accusing him of compromising his obligation to act impartially in the region.
Mr Johnson denied a conflict of interest as he was asked this morning about the previous night’s dinner at a luxury hotel on the outskirts of Belfast.
‘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.’
Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald said Mr Johnson’s 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.
‘Nobody believes that because there are no grounds to believe there is any kind of impartiality, much less strict impartiality.’
The republican leader said the confidence and supply deal with the DUP 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.
The SDLP’s deputy leader Nichola Mallon 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.
DUP leader Arlene Foster, who attended the dinner along with deputy leader Nigel Dodds and party whip Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, robustly rejected criticism of the confidence and supply deal.
The DUP’s 10 MPs have propped up the minority government since the 2017 general election — an arrangement that delivered a £1billion boost in public spending in Northern Ireland.
‘The confidence and supply agreement has been good for the people of Northern Ireland,’ she said.
Mrs Foster was particularly critical of Sinn Fein’s remarks.
‘I don’t feel mollycoddled at all,’ she said.
‘I think it is highly pejorative and actually quite offensive when the prime minister of the UK comes to this country and that is the sort of reaction he gets from Sinn Fein.’