Belfast Telegraph

Paisley hits out at 'provocative' Coveney over his Belfast remarks

Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill, Mary Lou McDonald and Conor Murphy
Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill, Mary Lou McDonald and Conor Murphy

By Cate McCurry

Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney has been accused of making inflammatory and disrespectful statements on Brexit during a visit to Belfast.

The Tanaiste found himself under attack after he claimed new Prime Minister Boris Johnson had set the UK on a collision course with the European Union.

He was speaking after meeting the new Secretary of State Julian Smith yesterday.

Responding to the comments, DUP MP Ian Paisley said the Irish Government should "dial down the megaphone diplomacy" and said Mr Coveney's language while in Belfast was "unhelpful and unnecessarily aggressive".

Mr Smith, making his first visit after being appointed on Wednesday night, also denied the allegation. He said the PM is "very clear" that he wants to reach a deal with the EU.

Speaking after the first meeting between Irish and British Government ministers since Mr Johnson moved into Number 10, Mr Coveney had said the new PM's comments on Brexit so far had been "unhelpful".

Mr Coveney said: "He seems to have made a deliberate decision to set Britain on a collision course with the EU and Ireland in relation to the Brexit negotiations.

"Only he can answer the question as to why he is doing that.

"From a Brexit negotiating perspective, it was a bad day yesterday and we will have to wait and see if that message coming from London changes in the weeks ahead."

But Mr Smith said: "I think we need to find solutions, particularly for the issue of the border, but the Prime Minister was very, very clear to his Cabinet yesterday that he wants to get a deal done.

"But we do need to have structured conversations with the EU and I think they are open to doing that, I had a very, very good conversation with Simon today."

Mr Paisley also hit out at the Tanaiste's remarks.

He added: "The Irish Government is entirely entitled to speak its mind.

"However, for the Irish Foreign Minister to parade around Parliament Buildings in Stormont as if it is his seat of government is downright provocative and disrespectful.

"It is high time Simon Coveney showed some respect for the constitutional situation.

"If he wants to make inflammatory statements, he should do so in his own country and be fully aware of the damage he is doing."

Earlier on Friday, Mr Smith separately met the parties at Stormont.

He said he hopes they can meet again next week to get talks on restoring power-sharing moving.

"We have got to get these talks up and running, it has been going on far too long," he said.

"I had hoped for a holiday but I am going to be making sure that I push as hard as I possibly can to get these talks going because there are a whole range of issues that need resolving, the biggest issue is to make sure that public services and basic important decisions are made for every citizen in Northern Ireland."

DUP leader Arlene Foster spoke to Mr Smith by telephone as she was unable to be in Belfast.

She said: "The biggest single issue facing Northern Ireland is the ongoing need to have decisions made which impact on our schools, roads and hospitals.

"I assured the Secretary of State that we will work earnestly to have the institutions restored. We have not placed any red lines or pre-conditions to an Executive being formed."

Speaking after an hour-long meeting with Mr Smith, Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald said the party raised issues around Brexit and the consequences of no-deal.

She said she also pressed Mr Smith on Irish unity, adding she hopes he is the last British Secretary of State.

She said: "He is aware of the issues. He is aware that they have been well rehearsed. He's aware that this process of talks and negotiations has, to use his term, ebbed and flowed."

Ulster Unionist MLA Doug Beattie said of Mr Smith: "He needs to give us a direction of travel (in the talks), which we have been sadly lacking over the last few months and weeks.

"We made it absolutely clear to him that no matter what his relationship is with the DUP, he cannot be a sop to their tantrums and cannot be meek and mild in front of Sinn Fein's intransigence. He needs to bang their heads together."

SDLP deputy leader Nichola Mallon said there is "widespread concern" Mr Smith was given the position to be Mr Johnson's "yes man" to the DUP.

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