Boris Johnson has insisted a dinner with the DUP has not undermined his impartiality in efforts to restore Stormont powersharing.
The prime minister dined with DUP leader Arlene Foster and other senior party colleagues in Belfast on Tuesday.
The event came amid ongoing negotiations aimed at renewing the Conservatives’ confidence and supply deal with the unionist party which is keeping Johnson’s minority Government in power.
The dinner in Belfast was organised ahead of Johnson’s first visit to Stormont as prime minister, where he is holding a series of meetings with the five main parties on Wednesday morning.
Critics have claimed the Government is unable to act as an impartial mediator in talks to restore the crisis-hit institutions due to the controversial Westminster deal with the DUP.
Johnson denied a conflict of interest as he arrived at Stormont House on Wednesday.
“It’s all there in the Good Friday Agreement, we believe in complete impartiality and that’s what we are going to observe,” he said.
“But the crucial thing is to get this Stormont government up and running again.”
Earlier, Foster maintained the confidence and supply deal had not been the focus of the dinner.
Johnson said he was in the north of Ireland to concentrate on the devolution impasse.
“It’s great to be here in Northern Ireland,” he said.
“Clearly the people in Northern Ireland have been without a government, without Stormont, for two years and six months, so my prime focus this morning is to do everything I can to help that get up and running again because I think that’s profoundly in the interests of people here, of all the citizens here in Northern Ireland.”
On Brexit, Johnson said: “The crucial thing to stress is, I obviously attach huge importance to the letter, spirit of the Belfast Good Friday Agreement and will be insisting on that.”
The north of Ireland has been without a devolved government since early 2017, with hamstrung civil servants currently running under-pressure public services amid a reluctance by the Westminster Government to re-introduce direct rule.
Stormont’s two main parties – the DUP and Sinn Féin – remain at loggerheads over a series of long-standing disputes, with a series of talks initiatives aimed at securing a resolution having ended in failure.
Johnson’s visit to Stormont comes amid deadlock in the latest talks process.
Families of people killed by the security forces during the Troubles are among those planning to protest on the Stormont estate while the prime minister is holding his meetings.
DUP leader Foster, deputy leader Nigel Dodds and party whip Sir Jeffrey Donaldson attended Tuesday’s dinner with the prime minister.
The DUP’s 10 Westminster MPs have propped up the minority Government since the 2017 general election – an arrangement that delivered a £1 billion boost in public spending in the north of Ireland.
New Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith did not attend the dinner, although he was at Stormont House on Wednesday morning to greet Johnson.
The last DUP / Sinn Féin-led powersharing coalition imploded in January 2017 when the late Martin McGuinness quit as Sinn Féin deputy first minister amid a row about a botched green energy scheme.
The fallout over the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) was soon overtaken by disputes over the Irish language, same-sex marriage and the toxic legacy of the Troubles.
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