Boris Johnson’s impartiality towards the Stormont powersharing situation has come into question after he dined with DUP leader Arlene Foster and other senior party colleagues in Belfast.
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 as Johnson visited Stormont for the first time as prime minister.
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 has denied a conflict of interest as he arrived at Stormont House.
“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.”
Foster maintained the confidence and supply deal had not been the focus of the dinner.
Northern 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 government to re-introduce direct rule.
Stormont’s two main parties – the DUP and Sinn Fein – 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.
DUP leader Mrs Foster, deputy leader Nigel Dodds and party whip Sir Jeffrey Donaldson attended the dinner with the prime minister but new Northern Ireland secretary Julian Smith did not.
Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald was critical of the dinner, challenging Johnson to stop being the DUP’s “gopher”. She said the stated claim of impartiality was “laughable”.
“He tells us he will act with absolute impartiality, we have told him that nobody believes that,” she said.
“Nobody believes that because there are no grounds to believe there is any kind of impartiality, much less strict impartiality.”
The republican leader said the confidence and supply deal had “poisoned the groundwater” at Stormont.
“He asked for our advice and we have strongly advised him that to make progress here he needs to ensure that he is not the DUP’s gopher, he needs to stop mollycoddling them, he needs to spell out the realities of life to them and put pressure on his unionist colleagues to ensure we can land on an equitable and sustainable agreement,” she said.
The last DUP/Sinn Fein-led powersharing coalition imploded in January 2017 when the late Martin McGuinness quit as Sinn Fein 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.