Boris Johnson declares ‘Union comes first’ and vows to prevent hard border
Arriving at the Culloden Hotel in Holywood yesterday, Boris Johnson was quick to settle into his mile-a-minute style by chatting to reporters about attending a 1996 visit by the Clintons to Belfast.
Promises to oppose the “moral blackmail” from the European Union over the backstop and to deliver Brexit by October 31 soon followed before meeting local Conservative members and a whistle-stop visit to Stormont for talks with the DUP leader Arlene Foster.
Speaking just before the hustings event started in a nearby suite, he remained upbeat on his chances of securing a Brexit withdrawal deal with the EU but declined to comment in detail on how he would restore Stormont, or if he still supported building a bridge between Northern Ireland and Scotland.
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Mr Johnson said was “going to make sure that under no circumstances do we go ahead with a deal” that would present any UK prime minister with “an appalling choice either to surrender the government of the UK — in the sense that we wouldn’t be able to do proper free trade deals, we wouldn’t be able to diverge our regulatory framework” — or the government of Northern Ireland.
“That is not acceptable to me. For me the Union comes first,” he continued.
“I also think that we’re going to be able to come out as a whole United Kingdom, whole and entire, and do a great deal with our European friends.”
Mr Johnson said he had every reason to believe Dublin and Brussels were determined to find a solution that allows frictionless trade across the Northern Ireland border.
This meant “in no circumstances” would he allow a hard border in Ireland to exist if he was Prime Minister, and effective checks on issues like trade could be conducted away from the border.
Asked by the Belfast Telegraph what he would specifically do as Prime Minister to break the Stormont deadlock, he said: “I want Stormont to be back up and running as fast as possible. I think all parties to the talks should make whatever compromises that are necessary to get it done.
“I’m not going to comment on the details of the arguments that are currently going on, but I do think a deal is possible.
“I do think it’s possible for Stormont to resume, it should resume, it’s good for Northern Ireland.”
On the issue of building a bridge to Scotland, he added: “Let’s see what the government of Northern Ireland says when it’s back up and running.”
Asked if he prioritised Brexit over maintaining the Union with Northern Ireland, he said: “The Union for me is absolutely inviolable but I’m also convinced we can, must and will come out of the EU whole and entire as one United Kingdom on October 31.
“It’s a hard deadline, that’s what we’re going to achieve and make a great success out of it.”
Addressing local Conservative Party members, Mr Johnson accused the European Union of “moral blackmail” over the issue of the backstop and insisted it had to go.
He said this directly led to his decision to quit the cabinet of the outgoing Prime Minister Theresa May.
“Under no circumstances, whatever happens, will I allow the EU or anyone else to create any kind of division down the Irish Sea or attenuate our Union,” he said.
“That is why I resigned over Chequers. It is a terrible moral blackmail it puts on the UK Government. We can’t have that.
“The way to protect the Union is to come out of the EU whole and entire. Solve the border issues where they belong in the FTA [free trade agreement] we are going to do.”
While taking questions in front of the audience, Mr Johnson agreed with his rival — the Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt — that any change in the law over abortion and same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland was “pre-eminently a matter for the people of Northern Ireland”.
He continued: “That is why, to risk sounding like a cracked record, I hope the government of Northern Ireland can be resumed as soon as possible so this issue can be decided in the forum where it properly belongs.”
Commenting on Twitter afterwards, he said: “I will never accept a deal that seeks to bind us in the EU’s customs union forever, or which divides our United Kingdom.
“In everything I do as PM, I will strengthen our union of four nations.”
After Mr Johnson’s convoy quickly headed towards Stormont for a photo with Arlene Foster, he commented: “Pleasure to meet [the DUP leader] today to discuss restoring and protecting the governance of Northern Ireland. If I become PM, under no circumstances will there be a hard border on the island of Ireland, nor will I accept a deal that sees NI taken out of the UK’s customs territory.”