Johnson accused of ‘bluff and bluster’ approach to Northern Ireland Brexit fears

The Prime Minister has been accused of meeting concerns about the impact of a no-deal Brexit on Northern Ireland with “bluff and bluster”.

Boris Johnson was challenged on his Brexit strategy amid some reportedly blunt exchanges with some of Stormont’s political leaders on Wednesday.

Downing Street said Mr Johnson “made clear” to the parties that the UK would be exiting on October 31 “come what may” but with the intention of doing so with a deal.

Number 10 said the Prime Minister also reiterated his stated commitment to the Good Friday Agreement and insisted there would be “no circumstances” that would see a return of physical checks or infrastructure on the border.

Sinn Fein, the SDLP and Alliance, all supporters of the ill-fated Withdrawal Agreement and the contentious border backstop, warned Mr Johnson of the potentially damaging consequences for the region if the UK leaves the EU without a deal.

The Ulster Unionists, which campaigned for Remain in 2016 but now want to see Brexit delivered, also cautioned the Prime Minister against a no-deal.

The DUP, the Conservatives’ confidence and supply partners at Westminster, again insisted they wanted to see a “sensible” Brexit deal, but said it would be foolish to take no-deal off the negotiating table.

Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald accused Mr Johnson of being “complacent” about the damage she said Brexit could inflict on the island of Ireland.

“His course of action, which seems to us that he has set the compass for a disorderly and a crash Brexit, we have challenged him very strongly on that policy,” she said.

“We set out very clearly that this would be catastrophic for the Irish economy, for Irish livelihoods, for our society, for our politics and for our peace accord.”

SDLP deputy leader Nichola Mallon said Mr Johnson was “hurtling” the region toward a “catastrophic” no-deal Brexit.

“We went into this meeting concerned that he would have a limited understanding of the complexities and the fragility of this place and those concerns have been confirmed,” she said.

“It is very clear he views and understands the situation through the eyes of the DUP.”

Ms Mallon added: “He just retorted with Brexit nearly every question you asked him, nearly every point you made he gave us bluff and bluster around Brexit.”

Ulster Unionist Party leader Robin Swann said: “We made it clear as well, a no-deal exit for Northern Ireland will be destructive.

“It is not something that we want to see and it is not something that we will countenance.”

Alliance leader Naomi Long said the UK was edging closer to a “cliff edge” Brexit.

“We made it absolutely clear the catastrophic impact a no-deal Brexit in particular would have in devastating businesses especially,” she said.

“I hope that hit the mark and he understands how serious this situation is.”

DUP leader Arlene Foster said the EU had to show willingness to strike a “sensible” Brexit deal.

“What we are focused on is supporting the Prime Minister in trying to get a deal,” she said.

“It is very clear it is the backstop that has caused all of the difficulties with the Withdrawal Agreement and therefore that needs to be the subject of focused negotiations to deal with it and therefore we will support the Prime Minister in doing that.”

DUP leader Arlene Foster speaking to the media following a meeting with Mr Johnson
DUP leader Arlene Foster speaking to the media following a meeting with Mr Johnson (Liam McBurney/PA)

The DUP has previously indicated a willingness to accept a backstop mechanism if it was time-limited.

Mrs Foster said the Prime Minister had now said the Withdrawal Agreement and backstop were both dead.

“We have to find a different way forward and that’s what we need to do and that’s what we will support the Prime Minister in doing,” she said.

On her rationale for not ruling out a no-deal, Mrs Foster said: “I sometimes wonder have people ever been in negotiations when they take things off the table before they get to the end of a negotiation.

“Of course you keep it on the table. We are in a negotiation to get the best deal for the people of the United Kingdom, you don’t take things off the table and we have learned that over quite some time.”

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