New PM Boris Johnson dines with the DUP ahead of first official NI trip
Prime Minister Boris Johnson last night had dinner with DUP leader Arlene Foster and other senior party members ahead of his first official visit to Northern Ireland today.
Mr Johnson dined with Mrs Foster, Nigel Dodds and Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, and will meet with the five main political parties today.
Meanwhile, the new Secretary of State has pledged to ensure that the "best possible plans are in place for the particular needs of Northern Ireland" if there is a no-deal Brexit.
Writing exclusively in today's Belfast Telegraph, Julian Smith also expressed his determination to "renew the pace and vigour" in the talks to restore devolution.
Mr Smith described the outstanding issues in the negotiations as "difficult but not insurmountable".
He said: "I have detected a willingness from the parties to come to reach an accommodation, and I have been pleased with the open and frank manner in which they have approached their meetings with me."
The Secretary of State said he would be "doing my utmost to ensure the ongoing negotiations reach a successful and timely outcome".
He added: "Agreement can only come from the parties, however. This talks process has being running for 14 weeks, and as we face into the autumn, the leaders of Northern Ireland's parties owe it to the public to reach an agreement quickly."
Turning to Brexit, Mr Smith said he was aware that many businesses in Northern Ireland supported Theresa May's withdrawal agreement and had raised concerns about a no-deal Brexit.
"The Prime Minister and I have pledged to do everything in our power to reach a deal with the EU that will pass through Parliament in Westminster," he said.
"In case it proves impossible to agree with the EU something that meets the conditions the Prime Minister has set out, we are doing everything we can to ensure the UK is prepared to leave without a deal on October 31 with minimum disruption, and it will be a priority for me to make sure that the best possible plans are in place for the particular needs of Northern Ireland."
Speaking ahead of his visit, Mr Johnson said that devolution must be restored as soon as possible as the Assembly and Executive had been missing for far too long.
"The people of Northern Ireland have now been without an Executive and Assembly for two years and six months. Put simply, this is much, much too long," the Prime Minister said.
"Northern Ireland's citizens need and deserve the Executive to get up and running again as soon as possible, so that locally accountable politicians can take decisions on the issues that really matter to local people.
"I'm pleased to meet each of Northern Ireland's party leaders today to stress that I am going to do everything in my power to make the ongoing talks to restore devolution a success."
DUP leader Arlene Foster told the Belfast Telegraph that she was delighted to welcome Mr Johnson to Northern Ireland "so early in his premiership".
She said: "Our priorities are very much aligned with the opening statements of the Government. We want to see devolution restored in Northern Ireland, Brexit delivered and the Union strengthened.
"Those trying to overturn the referendum result are democracy deniers. For our part, we have never been campaigners for leaving the EU without a deal."
Mrs Foster insisted that her party wanted a sensible deal. "It's time for Dublin to dial down the rhetoric and work with the other EU nations to reach a deal which respects the economic and constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom," she added.
Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann told the Belfast Telegraph he was looking forward to his meeting with Mr Johnson.
"He has his critics, but he's only just into office so we'll judge him by his actions," he said.
"I'll be encouraging him to make sure that any decisions he takes between now and October 31 are viewed through the prism of what's best for the United Kingdom as a whole.
"I'll be asking what his plans are to rejuvenate the current talks process, which has slid into a political slumber.
"I'll be making clear that if the talks don't succeed, we should move to direct rule."
The UUP leader continued: "The same goes for a no-deal Brexit.
"We don't want a no-deal Brexit, but if it happens Northern Ireland will need immediate direct rule with substantial support measures for our business and farming sectors as Northern Ireland will be at that point the new UK-EU frontier.
"There are also huge issues around legacy. The proposed Historical Investigations Unit will be a parallel police force focused on dragging former policemen and soldiers into court while former terrorists sit at home with royal pardons and OTR (on the run) letters in their back pockets.
"That is totally unacceptable to the UUP."
Mr Johnson is flying into Northern Ireland as part of a UK-wide tour. He has already visited Scotland, Wales and cities in the Midlands and North of England over the past week.
He previously announced that the Mid South West Growth Deal in Northern Ireland would receive a share of £300m new funding to help boost business and enhance opportunities for people in the region.