Belfast Telegraph

Suzanne Breen: For self-styled man of the people, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s first outing to Belfast a poor show

Suzanne Breen

By Suzanne Breen

Boris Johnson may be creating political fireworks in Britain, but his first official visit here as Prime Minister was a damp squib.

He didn't deliver a public speech nor did he hold a Press conference yesterday.

For a self-styled man of the people, it was a poor show.

This was meant to be the fourth leg of his UK-wide tour. But, unlike their counterparts across the Irish Sea, nobody in Belfast was given the opportunity to take selfies with BoJo, or give him a piece of their mind.

This visit was for invited political VIPs alone. And so while Arlene Foster, Mary Lou McDonald, Naomi Long, Robin Swann and Nichola Mallon were invited in for tete-a-tetes, everybody else was kept at arm's length.

Compare and contrast Mr Johnson's itinerary yesterday with that of Taoiseach Leo Varadkar who has dropped into gay (and other) bars along with Orange museums when he has crossed the border.

The behind-closed-doors nature of the Prime Minister's visit rightly or wrongly left the impression that he is running scared of facing public scrutiny.

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Maybe it's not that Mr Johnson - a former journalist who has never been publicity shy - was personally averse to speaking to the Press or public. This smacked of his Downing Street minders deciding they dare not let him loose in case he said something 'colourful' at a politically sensitive time in the most politically sensitive of places.

Nevertheless, it hardly smacked of courage.

Even at her most embattled and exhausted moment, Theresa May faced the Press here. Her answers to questions may have been robotic. But, at least she took them in front of the world's media, while Boris yesterday hid away. Despite saying nothing, he caused controversy anyway by the choice of with whom he broke bread.

He visited the Culloden Hotel for a Tory leadership hustings event a few weeks ago, and evidently was won over by its charms.

The Prime Minister was back in the swanky north Down premises for dinner with Mrs Foster, Nigel Dodds and Sir Jeffrey Donaldson on Tuesday night.

Nationalist noses were understandably put out of joint. The SDLP said "wining and dining" the DUP had set the wrong tone for the visit. It had sent out a message that Mr Johnson had a "cosy relationship with one party here in Northern Ireland and that's damaging to our peace process".

Sinn Fein spoke of the "mollycoddling of the DUP" and warned Mr Johnson against becoming that party's "gopher".

Mrs Foster said she found such language insulting. "I don't feel mollycoddled at all," she said.

"I think it is highly pejorative and actually quite offensive when the Prime Minister of the UK comes to this country and that is the sort of reaction he gets from Sinn Fein."

But imagine if a Labour government is returned to power after the next general election. And in advance of meeting all the party leaders, Prime Minister Corbyn holds a private dinner with Mary Lou McDonald, Michelle O'Neill and Conor Murphy.

The DUP would be fit to be tied.

The dinner is of course reflective of parliamentary arithmetic and Mrs Foster's party can't be faulted for playing a great hand to full advantage.

Yet let's not pretend that Mr Johnson's dinner date doesn't damage the government's already fraught relationship with the nationalist community. After he left Stormont, a Downing Street spokesperson said the Prime Minister had told the party leaders that there must be "serious and intense engagement" to reach a deal to restore power-sharing.

He had also stressed that Brexit would happen at Halloween.

Alliance leader Naomi Long described her meeting with Mr Johnson as "frank and candid".

She said she left unaware if he had a plan to stop a no-deal Brexit.

"If he does, he certainly disguises it well," she said with more than a little hint of sarcasm.

Unsurprisingly, both the DUP and the UUP were impressed with Mr Johnson. They found him more "open and energetic" than his predecessor and "more clued-in than he's given credit for".

It's just a shame that the rest of us were denied the chance to judge for ourselves.

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