Belfast Telegraph

Ivan Little: 'I see the hand of the future beckoning us forward'... Boris breezes in to see winds of change blow at Stormont

Ivan Little

By Ivan Little

Storm Boris blew into the aptly named Stormont on Monday as outside Storm Brendan lashed the home of the freshly restored Northern Ireland Executive, which had been paralysed by a political power cut for the past three years

The ebullient Prime Minister was likened to a whirlwind as he breezed around the Stormont Estate to meet the leaders of the new government and their ministers.

His first call was at Stormont Castle where he bounded up the steps with his shirt-tail hanging out to plant a kiss on the cheek of First Minister Arlene Foster and shake the hand of the Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill.

The gale-force winds made little difference to the traditionally tousled hair of Boris Johnson but the two women had a bit of readjusting to do after their doorstep greeting.

First Minister Arlene Foster and deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill and the new Executive meets with Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Secretary of State Julian Smith. Photo by William Cherry/Presseye
First Minister Arlene Foster and deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill and the new Executive meets with Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Secretary of State Julian Smith. Photo by William Cherry/Presseye
Boris Johnson met with first and deputy first ministers Arlene Foster and Michelle O'Neill and NI Secretary Julian Smith at Stormont Castle to mark the restoration of devolution in NI. Photo Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker Press
Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaking in the Great Hall of Parliament Buildings, Stormont during a visit where he met First Minister Arlene Foster and deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill and the new Executive. Photo by William Cherry/Presseye
Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaking in the Great Hall of Parliament Buildings, Stormont during a visit where he met First Minister Arlene Foster and deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill and the new Executive. Photo by William Cherry/Presseye
Boris Johnson speaks to the media at Stormont after meetings with Arlene Foster and Michelle O'Neill and NI Secretary Julian Smith after the restoration of devolution in NI. Photo Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker Press
Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar and Prime Minister, Boris Johnson meet at Stormont on January 13, 2020 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)
Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Julian Smith (left), Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar (centre left), Prime Minister, Boris Johnson (centre right) and Ireland's deputy premier, Tanaiste, Simon Coveney (right) in the Parliament Buildings, Stormont, Belfast. PA Photo. Picture date: Monday January 13, 2020. Pic: Liam McBurney/PA Wire
Boris Johnson at Stormont (Liam McBurney/PA)
Boris Johnson, Michelle O’Neill, Arlene Foster and Julian Smith (Liam McBurney/PA)
Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly, Alex Maskey (left) and Boris Johnson (Liam McBurney/PA)
Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, speaking in the Parliament Buildings, Stormont, Belfast, whilst on a visit to meet the leaders of the restored powersharing government. PA Photo. Picture date: Monday January 13, 2020. See PA story ULSTER Politics. Photo credit should read: Liam McBurney/PA Wire
Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Secretary of State Julian Smith meet with First Minister Arlene Foster and deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill.
BELFAST, NORTHERN IRELAND - JANUARY 13: Prime Minister Boris Johnson (L) and Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Julian Smith (R) are greeted by First Minister, Arlene Foster of the DUP (2nd R) and Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill (2nd L) of Sinn Fein at Stormont on January 13, 2020 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)
Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, speaking in the Parliament Buildings, Stormont. Photo credit: Liam McBurney/PA Wire
Prime Minister Boris Johnson (left) and Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Julian Smith (right) during their visit to Stormont, Belfast to meet the leaders of the restored powersharing government. PA Photo. Picture date: Monday January 13, 2020. See PA story ULSTER Politics. Photo credit should read: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

No such problems for the new Speaker Alex Maskey as he welcomed Mr Johnson at a side door to Parliament Buildings.

Inside the Great Hall over 150 journalists and technicians waited patiently for Mr Johnson to breeze in.

On the balconies Stormont staff - some of them recalled to Executive duties from other departments - craned their necks to watch what was going on below.

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A party of 40-plus pupils from St Joseph's Primary School in Dunloy couldn't believe their luck when they were told they could extend their educational trip to Stormont by getting to see Mr Johnson.

Teacher Donna Donnelly said: "They were told if they stood quietly at the back they would be allowed to stay."

Security staff later ushered the children into a better vantage point at the side of the Great Hall, where the arrival of a gaggle of press officers from London and Belfast signalled that the PM was also on his way, sweeping down the marble staircase alongside Mr Maskey, who introduced the man who needed no introduction.

Mr Johnson smiled sweetly at the Press pack, recognising a friendly face in the front row.

And unusually for off-the-cuff Boris, he consulted notes as he launched into his speech.

Sinn Fein's John O'Dowd stood in the wings to listen to Mr Johnson. With his towering height, he had no problem seeing over the heads of those gathered, but an ingenious young St Joseph's pupil pushed himself on his stomach along the floor, through the legs of reporters, to give himself a closer view of the famous visitor.

Some opened a book on what Mr Johnson would say and the smiles they exchanged confirmed that he hadn't said anything they hadn't expected.

He thanked the politicians for stepping up to the plate; he promised strong support for the Executive and he talked of delivering priorities like health, education and fighting crime for the people of Northern Ireland.

Mr Johnson, however, fluffed his lines as he tried to paraphrase Tony Blair's famous "hand of history on my shoulder" remark at Hillsborough Castle in 1998.

The Tory leader said: "Never mind the hand of history on my shoulder, I see the hand of history, no, I see the hand of the future, I see the hand of the future beckoning us all forward." After finishing his opening remarks, Mr Johnson suddenly thrust his hand into his pocket and pulled out a piece of paper.

Was this a scribbled aide-memoire for a new line that he had thought up too late for inclusion in his prepared address?

No, it was a running order of journalists who he would call to ask him questions.

He started off with Mark Devenport of the BBC but he didn't get his name quite right.

Unperturbed, the man from the Beeb asked the man from Downing Street about how much money Westminster would give Stormont to support the new deal, but the PM sidestepped the question. He said it wasn't about money but leadership. Mr Johnson took questions from UTV, the News Letter, Irish News and Belfast Telegraph, chiding the latter's representative for being a "little bit harsh" in querying if his appearance at Stormont was just a photo opportunity or a publicity stunt.

Any chance that Mr Johnson might be pressed for his views on the big news story of the day - the Harry and Meghan crisis talks at Sandringham - was scuppered by the PM's final flourish.

"Thank you all very much indeed for your patience," he said.

"I'll be seeing you all later on."

Minutes later, in what seemed like a carefully choreographed piece of timing, Irish premier Leo Varadkar arrived at Stormont to play his part in the day's proceedings, which would take on a more British-Irish dimension in the afternoon.

The Taoiseach met the Executive with Mr Johnson, who was told by Mrs Foster and Mrs O'Neill that the British Government had to deliver the funds to support the Executive.

The two premiers were upbeat as they discussed legacy issues and Brexit, but Mr Johnson refused to talk about Harry and Meghan.

"I don't comment on stuff to do with the royal family," blustered Mr Johnson, leaving journalists to accept that they were whistling in the wind.

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