Boris Johnson sparks political row by refusing to hold talks with Sinn Fein on Belfast trip

Prime minister accused of ‘day out for Unionism’ in place of ‘grown-up engagement’ - amid Brexit turmoil

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
@Rob_Merrick
Friday 12 March 2021 20:08
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Boris Johnson denies snubbing Sein Fein's call for a meeting on Belfast trip

Boris Johnson has sparked a major political row on a trip to Belfast by refusing to hold talks with Sinn Fein leaders, despite the turmoil caused by Brexit.

The prime minister was accused of “superficial PR stunt” after joining Democratic Unionist Party leaders on a trip to vaccine centre – while snubbing the Nationalist party’s leadership call for a meeting.

A furious Michelle O’Neill, the Sinn Fein deputy first minister at the Stormont parliament, hit back by refusing to join Mr Johnson at a staged photo-op.

She protested that he was ignoring “a long-standing request” to discuss controversies including his “reckless and partisan approach to the Irish Protocol”.

The post-Brexit trade rules – creating a customs border in the Irish Sea – have led to higher prices, empty supermarket shelves and fears of food shortages, including at schools and hospitals.

The EU is threatening legal action for what it sees as a clear breach of the Protocol, when the UK unilaterally shelved the introduction of further agreed checks.

“He did not facilitate the meeting,” Ms O’Neill said, adding about the offer to join the prime minister on the visit “I have no plans to meet with him today.”

John Finucane, a Sinn Fein MP, said his party would not join a “day out for Unionism” as a substitute for “professional, grown-up engagement” on important issues.

“We’re not in the business of engaging in a fairly superficial PR stunt, which is what the British prime minister invited us to do today,” he said.

Mr Johnson’s schedule risks tarnishing the convention that the UK government is an “honest broker” in Northern Ireland politics, with its power-sharing government.

Successive prime ministers, including David Cameron and Theresa May, have willingly met the Sinn Fein leadership at difficult moments in the ongoing peace process.

Mr Johnson denied snubbing Sinn Fein, claiming Ms O’Neill was “otherwise engaged” and insisting he was willing to hold talks with any political party.

Rejecting her claim she was only offered a “photo op”, the prime minister said: “That’s not my information, but I’m always happy to meet all sides.”

Earlier, Arlene Foster, the leader of the DUP – which is demanding the Protocol is ripped up – attacked it as “intolerable”, ahead of her talks with Mr Johnson.

She urged the Prime Minister to “stand up for Northern Ireland”, amid Unionist anger that its place in the United Kingdom has been undermined.

The vaccine visit took place in her own Stormont constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone.

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