Boris Johnson was warned not 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 on Wednesday to discuss a governance crisis that has left the region shorn of a devolved executive for two and 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 on Wednesday 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 £1 billion boost in public spending in Northern Ireland.
“The confidence and supply agreement has been good for the people of Northern Ireland,” she said.
“You would think to hear some people that it was some bad thing that had been visited upon the people of Northern Ireland. We have delivered an extra billion pounds for the people of Northern Ireland, which they wouldn’t otherwise have if it were not for the relationship between ourselves and the current government”
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.”
Mr Dodds challenged Sinn Fein to rule out becoming a coalition partner in any future Irish government.
“If they criticise that (the confidence and supply deal) so strongly as being contrary to the Good Friday Agreement then clearly they will not want to have anything to do with a future Dublin government, which they describe as the co-guarantors of the agreement, or perhaps they are being somewhat selective in their approach to this particular issue?” he said.
Mr Johnson insisted he was in Northern Ireland to concentrate on the devolution impasse.
“Clearly the people in Northern Ireland have been without a government, without Stormont, for two years and six months, so my prime focus this morning is to do everything I can to help that get up and running again because I think that’s profoundly in the interests of people here, of all the citizens here in Northern Ireland,” he said.
After Mr Johnson departed Stormont at the conclusion of his meetings, a Downing Street spokesman said the Prime Minister had stressed the need for “serious and intense engagement” to resurrect powersharing.
“The Prime Minister told all of the parties that he was determined to bring this process to a successful conclusion and that he would do everything he could to make it happen,” he said.
“He said that while there had been constructive progress in recent weeks at Stormont, that there now needed to be serious and intense engagement to get this done and that he had faith that all parties would step up to the challenge.”
Northern Ireland has been without a devolved government since early 2017, with hamstrung civil servants currently running under-pressure public services amid a reluctance by the Government to re-introduce direct rule.
Stormont’s two main parties – the DUP and Sinn Fein – remain at loggerheads over a series of long-standing disputes, with a series of talks initiatives aimed at securing a resolution having ended in failure.
Mr Johnson’s visit came amid deadlock in the latest talks process.
Workers from the under-threat shipyard Harland and Wolff; anti-Brexit campaigners; Irish language activists; and families of people killed by the security forces during the Troubles were among those who held protests at Stormont to mark Mr Johnson’s visit.
The last DUP/Sinn Fein-led powersharing coalition imploded in January 2017 when the late Martin McGuinness quit as Sinn Fein deputy first minister amid a row about a botched green energy scheme.
The fallout over the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) was soon overtaken by disputes over the Irish language, same-sex marriage and the toxic legacy of the Troubles.
The five main Stormont parties held a roundtable on Wednesday afternoon, together with an Irish government representative.
Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith asked five independent working group leaders to hold further meetings and report back early next week.
He said: “I will discuss further steps with the Irish government once I have received their reports.
“It is my priority to restore devolution as soon as possible.”