Belfast Telegraph

I have never met Sinn Fein, but I'll talk to any one: Jeremy Hunt

Jeremy Hunt is greeted by supporters after arriving at a hustings at the Culloden Hotel
Jeremy Hunt is greeted by supporters after arriving at a hustings at the Culloden Hotel
Suzanne Breen

By Suzanne Breen

Tory leadership contender Jeremy Hunt has admitted that he has never met a single Sinn Fein politician.

But he said that as Prime Minister he would have to talk to "all parts of the community that are operating within the law".

Mr Hunt made the remarks in an interview with the Belfast Telegraph yesterday after a hustings event for Northern Ireland Conservative Party members in the Culloden Hotel.

He pledged to quickly negotiate a new 'confidence and supply' agreement with the DUP if elected Tory leader later this month.

Mr Hunt, who has been a Cabinet minister for almost a decade, admitted he had not met one republican politician.

Asked if he would rectify that as Prime Minister, he replied: "We need to have channels of communication with all parts of the community that are operating within the law, so I understand that is something that a Prime Minister has to do.

"But I am a unionist - that's what I am in every fibre of my being - and I will never allow the break-up of our United Kingdom."

With his party's confidence and supply agreement with the DUP running out at the end of the month, Mr Hunt said he wanted a new deal and would "open talks very quickly" with Arlene Foster's party if elected.

He said he knew the DUP leader and Nigel Dodds "very well" and was confident of having an "excellent working relationship" with the party if elected.

Mr Hunt has offered the DUP a place in his Brexit negotiating team. Asked by the Belfast Telegraph about his plans to represent the view of the Remain majority here, he said: "The Brexit deal I'm going to negotiate will work for all communities in Northern Ireland and will have to be agreed with the Irish Government as well."

The Foreign Secretary insisted that the odds making him the 5/1 outsider, to Boris Johnson's 1/8, were wrong.

"This is a chance to make a lot of money for people who go to the bookies," he said.

"I like to prove people wrong. I think this is a race I can win.

"I've been a Cabinet minister for nine years and I've been loyal to two Prime Ministers, even though I disagreed with them on many issues. The truth is that experience is going to be incredibly helpful in leading us out of the worst constitutional crisis we've had in my lifetime. People don't want a showman, they want someone who can lead us out of the crisis. That's me."

Asked if he would take the UK out of the EU on October 31 without a deal, he replied: "Yes, if there was no prospect of a deal. I think the only real difference between me and Boris is that if there was a deal and it was still getting through Parliament - hadn't quite got through - I wouldn't rip it up.

"I think we'll know pretty quickly if the EU are prepared to negotiate. If they're not, we would leave without a deal."

During the hustings Mr Hunt said there would never be a deal that included the backstop, "so it has to change or it has to go".

The backstop would "trap" the UK into following EU customs tariffs until Brussels gave its permission to leave, he said. "For a Brexit vote that was about bringing back sovereignty, that is not acceptable," he added.

He insisted he had opposed the backstop in Cabinet but, as a "loyal Foreign Secretary", had not gone public.

He also urged the DUP to "do their bit" and help get a Brexit deal through Parliament.

Mr Hunt voiced his support for a return to power-sharing at Stormont.

"It's totally unacceptable that politicians who are paid to run the NHS, to run the schools, to promote inward investment are not turning up to work and doing their job," he said.

"We have to be absolutely clear, this is a big abdication of responsibility and they need to get back to delivering what was a fundamental tenet of the Belfast Good Friday Agreement, which was that devolved Assembly.

"I think the lesson of that historic achievement back in 1998 is that the only way to do this is with the personal involvement of the Prime Minister.

"I think Theresa May has been very committed to Northern Ireland and to the Union, but I give you this commitment that I too as Prime Minister will put in the time personally to get the Assembly back up and running."

Although voicing his personal support for the legalisation of abortion and same-sex marriage here, Mr Hunt stressed they were matters for local politicians to decide.

"These are deeply personal issues. If I was Northern Irish, I would want the law changed in both of those areas," he said.

"This is a devolved matter and I think the best way to resolve this is to get the Assembly back up and running and to establish a consensus in the province so that we can go forward on these very difficult issues."

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