Boris Johnson in Northern Ireland for talks over power-sharing deadlock

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Media captionBoris Johnson: “I am committed to Good Friday Agreement”

Boris Johnson has joined political talks in Northern Ireland promising to do “everything in my power” to help efforts to restore the power-sharing government.

On Wednesday morning the PM began a series of meetings with the five main Stormont parties.

On Tuesday night, Mr Johnson held a private meeting with DUP leader Arlene Foster.

He relies on the party for support in key votes in Parliament.

Brexit is certain to be on the agenda for the day’s talks.

Speaking as he arrived at Stormont, Mr Johnson said his prime focus was to do everything he could to help get Stormont “back up and running”.

“I will be helping the parties in any way I can to help get that over the line,” he added.

“I expect Brexit may come up but it’s crucial that I attach huge importance to the letter and spirit of the Good Friday Agreement.”

Speaking on BBC Breakfast on Wednesday morning, DUP leader Arlene Foster provided some details about her meeting with the prime minister on Tuesday night.

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Media captionArlene Foster spoke at Stormont ahead of further meetings with the PM

She said:”We talked about the fact we both wanted to get a deal, we talked about the fact that Dublin and indeed Brussels needed to dial back on the rhetoric and be a willing a partner to find a deal, not just for the United Kingdom but for Republic of Ireland and the whole of Europe.

“It is important we focus on trying to get a deal moving forward instead of just focusing on no deal scenario.”

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NI Secretary Julian Smith with Prime Minister Boris Johnson as he arrived at Stormont

Mrs Foster added: “No deal is on the table because of the fact we have a very belligerent European Union, who instead of focusing on a deal that was good for all of us, wanted to break-up the United Kingdom, something of course which no British prime minister should be a part of.”

The issue over what will happen at the land border on the island of Ireland after Brexit – and the proposed Irish backstop – has caused deep divisions between the parties at Stormont.

‘DUP’s gopher’

Mr Johnson met Sinn Féin first on Wednesday before talks with the smaller parties and further discussions with the DUP.

After the meeting Sinn Féin President Mary Lou McDonald said she told the prime minister he must not be “the DUP’s gopher”.

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Sinn Féin President Mary Lou McDonald gave a press conference after her meeting with the prime minister

Mrs McDonald said she did not believe the PM’s claim that he would act with “total impartiality” towards all parties in NI.

“It’s not our business who dines with whom, but the politics of this is the DUP have used this to ensure… the continuing denial of rights and trample on the views of the majority of people who live here,” added Mrs McDonald.

As the talks were taking place, a number of protestors gathered outside, including a group of Harland and Wolff shipyard workers who are lobbying the government to renationalise their workplace.

The firm’s Norwegian parent company Dolphin Drilling is having serious financial problems and put Harland and Wolff up for sale late last year.

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Harland and Wolff workers are protesting at Stormont

They were joined at Stormont by Irish language campaigners and the families of those killed in Ballymurphy in 1971 with others calling for government action on legacy issues.

Mr Johnson’s trip is the last in his three-day tour around the UK’s devolved nations, after visiting Scotland and Wales.

Northern Ireland has been without a government since 2017, when the power-sharing parties split in a bitter row. Talks to find an agreement are ongoing but deadlocked, and Mr Johnson will meet those involved in the discussions.

He met Ms Foster as well as DUP MPs Sir Jeffrey Donaldson and Nigel Dodds for a dinner, according to BBC News NI political reporter Jayne McCormack.

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Boris Johnson attended the DUP party conference in Belfast in 2018

The DUP is due to renew the confidence-and-supply agreement which Mr Johnson’s Conservative Party depends on for a working majority in the House of Commons.

The latest talks process to get the assembly up and running again began on 7 May, co-chaired by the British and Irish governments.

Several attempts to kick-start devolution have already failed.

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Julian Smith was appointed Northern Ireland Secretary last Wednesday

The NI Secretary Mr Smith has already met with the parties since joining the Northern Ireland Office.

What progress has there been so far?

The talks have been taking place for almost three months – but there is no sign of an end to the impasse between the two largest parties.

Sinn Féin insists the “outstanding issues remain the same” and wants the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to commit to an Irish language act – something the DUP has refused to support.

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Northern Ireland has not had a devolved government since January 2017

The recent move by MPs to legislate for same-sex marriage and liberalise abortion laws in Northern Ireland, if devolution isn’t restored by 21 October, has not helped the atmosphere either.

The DUP is opposed to a law change on both issues, but Sinn Féin is in favour and says it accepts the change being implemented through Westminster, if some of the Stormont parties are not willing to do it sooner.

There are also calls for other issues to be taken through Westminster in the absence of devolved ministers at Stormont.

What could Brexit mean for the NI talks?

Mr Johnson has insisted the UK must leave the EU by 31 October “no matter what”, even if that means without a deal.

There have been stark warnings about the impact of a no-deal Brexit on Northern Ireland.

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Unionist parties have called for the British government to reinstate direct rule – while nationalist parties would prefer ‘joint authority’ with Dublin

This week, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab was asked whether that might mean direct rule was needed, which would see Westminster regaining control of devolved powers and legislating for Northern Ireland.

Mr Raab told the BBC the government would make sure all arrangements are in place “so that we don’t have a vacuum” in Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland’s unionist parties have called for the British government to reinstate direct rule, but nationalist parties advocate ‘joint authority’ and say Dublin should have greater input in decision-making for Northern Ireland in that scenario.

Will Brexit be on the agenda today?

Number 10 says the focus of Mr Johnson’s visit to Northern Ireland is the latest attempt to restore devolution.

But given the new prime minister’s approach to the Brexit deadlock, it is likely to take up much of his discussions with the Stormont parties.

Northern Ireland is crucial in the Brexit debate because of the border it shares with the Republic of Ireland, which will become the UK’s only land border with the EU after Brexit.

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The backstop is the insurance policy negotiated as part of the UK-EU withdrawal agreement, which aims to keep the border as seamless as it is now and avoid land border checks.

But Mr Johnson has referred to it as a “monstrosity”.

Speaking to the Taoiseach (Irish prime minister) Leo Varadkar by phone on Tuesday, he said it must be “abolished” from any Brexit deal.

The DUP is also in favour of the backstop being scrapped, but it is at odds with the majority of Northern Ireland’s political parties, as well as business and farming groups who maintain it would minimise disruption to trade and protect jobs.

Mr Varadkar has invited Mr Johnson to visit him in Dublin to discuss Brexit, as the Irish government and EU27 say the backstop must remain as part of the overall withdrawal deal.