Boris Johnson ‘very clear’ he wants Brexit deal, insists new minister
The new Northern Ireland Secretary has hit back at comments by Ireland’s deputy premier after he accused Boris Johnson of setting the UK on a collision course with the European Union.
In his first visit to Northern Ireland since his appointment, Julian Smith denied the allegation and said the PM is “very clear” that he wants to reach a deal with the EU.
Speaking after the first meeting between Irish and British Government ministers since Mr Johnson moved into Number 10, Tanaiste Simon Coveney said the new PM’s comments on Brexit so far had been “unhelpful”.
Mr Coveney said: “He seems to have made a deliberate decision to set Britain on a collision course with the EU and Ireland in relation to the Brexit negotiations.
“Only he can answer the question as to why he is doing that.
“From a Brexit negotiating perspective, it was a bad day yesterday and we will have to wait and see if that message coming from London changes in the weeks ahead.”
But Mr Smith said: “I think we need to find solutions, particularly for the issue of the border, but the Prime Minister was very, very clear to his Cabinet yesterday that he wants to get a deal done.
“But we do need to have structured conversations with the EU and I think they are open to doing that, I had a very, very good conversation with Simon today.”
Earlier on Friday, Mr Smith separately met the five main parties at Stormont.
He said he hopes they can meet again next week to get talks on restoring powersharing moving.
“We have got to get these talks up and running, it has been going on far too long,” he said.
“I had hoped for a holiday but I am going to be making sure that I push as hard as I possibly can to get these talks going because there are a whole range of issues that need resolving, the biggest issue is to make sure that public services and basic important decisions are made for every citizen in Northern Ireland.”
Speaking after an hour-long meeting with Mr Smith, Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald said the party raised issues around Brexit and the consequences of no-deal.
She said she also pressed Mr Smith on Irish unity, adding she hopes he is the last British Secretary of State.
She said: “We have stepped through all of the issues with him and obviously the outstanding rights issues and the issues that need to be resolved to ensure that the institutions can be restored, and that, crucially, we can deliver inclusive, sustainable and good government for every citizen living in this part of Ireland.
“He is aware of the issues. He is aware that they have been well rehearsed. He’s aware that this process of talks and negotiations has, to use his term, ebbed and flowed.”
Mrs McDonald said she also challenged him on the DUP’s confidence and supply agreement with the Conservatives.
“We have said to him very clearly that that relationship has poisoned the water here and has conspired to keep the institutions down,” she added.
Ulster Unionist MLA Doug Beattie said of Mr Smith: “He needs to give us a direction of travel (in the talks), which we have been sadly lacking over the last few months and weeks.
“We made it absolutely clear to him that no matter what his relationship is with the DUP, he cannot be a sop to their tantrums and cannot be meek and mild in front of Sinn Fein’s intransigence. He needs to bang their heads together.”
Alliance leader Naomi Long said her party laid bare to Mr Smith the impact of a no-deal Brexit on Northern Ireland, both politically and socially.
She said: “We set out for him very clearly how we see things in Northern Ireland, the importance of getting an Executive restored, the difficulty of doing that in the context of Brexit, and now the rumours of a general election.
“We made it clear that (former PM) Theresa May finally realised that was not a prospect which would work in terms of Northern Ireland and we now need him to be stressing that reality to the Prime Minister.”
SDLP deputy leader Nichola Mallon said: “We had one simple but important question – is he going to be part of the solution or is he going to be part of the problem?”
She claimed there is “widespread concern” Mr Smith was given the position to be Mr Johnson’s “yes man” to the DUP.
She added: “The DUP’s world view of the situation in the North is not an accurate one and we made that crystal clear to him.”
DUP leader Arlene Foster spoke to Mr Smith by telephone as she was unable to be in Belfast.
She said: “The biggest single issue facing Northern Ireland is the ongoing need to have decisions made which impact on our schools, roads and hospitals.
“I assured the Secretary of State that we will work earnestly to have the institutions restored. We have not placed any red lines or pre-conditions to an Executive being formed.”
On Friday afternoon, Mr Smith visited the Guildhall in Londonderry where he was greeted by Derry and Strabane deputy mayor Cara Hunter and council chief executive John Kelpie.
A number of Irish language act and Bloody Sunday campaigners staged a demonstration outside during his visit.