Belfast Telegraph

Simon Coveney accuses Boris Johnson of setting UK on ‘collision course’ with EU

The Irish foreign affairs minister spoke after a meeting with new Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith.

Julian Smith speaks to the media as he arrives at the Guildhall in Londonderry (Brian Lawless/PA)
Julian Smith speaks to the media as he arrives at the Guildhall in Londonderry (Brian Lawless/PA)

Ireland’s foreign affairs minister has accused Boris Johnson of making comments designed to set the UK on a collision course with the Republic and the European Union.

Simon Coveney made the comments after he met Northern Ireland’s new Secretary of State Julian Smith in Belfast.

In the first meeting between Irish and British government ministers since Mr Johnson’s appointment as Prime Minister, Ireland’s deputy premier said he stressed the need to restore Stormont.

Speaking after the meeting, the Tanaiste said the Prime Minister’s comments on Brexit were “unhelpful”, adding that it was a bad day for the Brexit process.

“I think the statements of the British Prime Minister in the House of Commons were unhelpful in this process,” he added.

“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.”

Responding, Mr Smith said he does not believe the UK is on a collision course.

He 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 Smith held a series of separate meetings with the five main parties at Stormont on Friday.

He said he plans to ask to meet with them again on Monday and Tuesday to get the talks moving, pledging he does not plan to take a holiday but instead focus on the talks to restore powersharing government at Stormont.

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

“I worked seven days a week, 24 hours a day as Government Chief Whip, 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.”

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Mr Smith is hoping to restore the Stormont Executive (Brian Lawless/PA)

He will now lead the all-party talks process in the hope of reaching a deal to restore the institutions in Northern Ireland.

On Friday afternoon he visited the Guildhall in Londonderry.

He was greeted by Derry and Strabane deputy mayor Cara Hunter and council chief executive John Kelpie.

Mr Smith also met Foyle MP Elisha McCallion inside the Guildhall.

There is no doubt that there are major challenges and we have got to treat those challenges very carefully. Julian Smith

A number of Irish language act and Bloody Sunday campaigners staged a demonstration outside the building during his visit.

Asked whether he has confidence in the Northern Ireland talks, Mr Smith said: “There were really good conversations this morning and I think all the political parties seem ready to engage in detail.

“I’ve asked them to meet on Monday and Tuesday next week. We need to really push forward because getting the Executive up and running is really key to moving things on and that’s part of the preparations for Brexit.

“There is no doubt that there are major challenges and we have got to treat those challenges very carefully, and I intend to do everything I can to address those challenges.”

Sinn Fein’s meeting with Mr Smith lasted about an hour.

They spoke about Brexit and the consequences of the UK crashing out of the EU.

Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald said she pressed Mr Smith on the issue of Irish unity, adding that she hoped he was the last British Secretary of State.

She said: “We have stepped through all of the issues with him and obviously the outstanding rights issues and the issues that need to be resolved to ensure that the institutions can be restored, and that, crucially, we can deliver inclusive, sustainable and good government for every citizen living in this part of Ireland.

“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.

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Mr Smith on the Double Bastion of the city walls in Londonderry during his first visit to the region since his appointment (Brian Lawless/PA)

“He’s also aware that it needs to pick up momentum, that it can’t go on forever.

“He has committed that he will deal with all of the parties on the basis of equality and impartiality.”

Mrs McDonald said she also challenged him on the DUP’s confidence and supply agreement with the Conservatives.

“We have said to him very clearly that that relationship has poisoned the water here and has conspired to keep the institutions down,” she added.

“I think his commitment to deal even-handedly will be tested in the coming weeks. We don’t need a ‘yes’ man.”

Ulster Unionist MLA Doug Beattie said that Mr Smith cannot “sop” to the DUP.

“He does need time to put his feet under the table, but he doesn’t have a lot of time, he doesn’t have weeks. He can’t sit there and pontificate about what his next move is,” he added.

He called for the new Secretary of State to ramp up the talks process and give clear structure.

“He needs to give us a direction of travel, which we have been sadly lacking over the last few months and weeks,” he continued.

“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.”

Mr Beattie added: “What he cannot do is ignore the smaller parties and think he’s going to bounce us at the very end of this process and expect us to jump in.

“There is an issue of governance and an issue of transparency, and we want to see those addressed properly.

“As Secretary of State he needs to be proactive and, if he is not, he will fall in exactly the same way as the last Secretary of State fell.”

Alliance leader Naomi Long said her party laid bare the impact of a no-deal Brexit on Northern Ireland, both politically and socially.

She said: “We set out for him very clearly how we see things in Northern Ireland, the importance of getting an Executive restored, the difficulty of doing that in the context of Brexit and now the rumours of a general election.

“We made it clear that Theresa May finally realised that was not a prospect which would work in terms of Northern Ireland and we now need him to be stressing that reality to the Prime Minister.”

SDLP deputy leader Nichola Mallon said: “We had one simple but important question – is he going to be part of the solution or is he going to be part of the problem?”

She claimed there is “widespread concern” that Mr Smith was given the position to be Mr Johnson’s “yes man” to the DUP.

“The DUP’s world view of the situation in the North is not an accurate one and we made that crystal clear to him,” she added.

“We pressed on him the importance of engaging with people in communities right across the North to get an understanding of the situation.”

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