Sinn Féin calls Boris Johnson's visit to Northern Ireland publicity stunt

PM went to vaccination centre in Fermanagh and unveiled plans to mark state’s centenary

A visit by Boris Johnson to Northern Ireland to promote its centenary and response to Covid-19 has triggered a political row with Sinn Féin, which branded his visit a publicity stunt.

The prime minister went to a vaccination centre in County Fermanagh and unveiled plans to mark the state’s foundation a 100 years ago during a one-day visit on Friday.

Sinn Féin’s deputy first minister, Michelle O’Neill, did not welcome Johnson to Belfast or attend any of his events after he declined to meet her and Sinn Féin’s leader, Mary Lou McDonald, to discuss the Stormont executive and post-Brexit arrangements. The party accused him of reneging on commitments.

Arlene Foster, the first minister and Democratic Unionist party leader, urged the prime minister to “stand up for Northern Ireland” and replace “intolerable” post-Brexit checks on goods arriving from Great Britain.

In an apparent olive branch to Foster, Johnson visited a vaccination centre in her native Fermanagh.

Earlier the government unveiled plans to mark the centenary of Northern Ireland, which include tree-planting, a postmark, a church service, an investment conference and possibly a meeting of G7 trade and finance ministers.

Official events include a concert, academic seminars and the presentation of a centenary rose – a mix of rose pink, ivory and yellow – to the Queen. There will be a ceremony at Belfast city hall to mark the 100th anniversary of the opening of Northern Ireland’s parliament on 22 June 1921 by King George V. Approximately £1m has been awarded to 39 community projects which will mark the centenary.

The creation of Northern Ireland paved the way for the formation of the UK as it is today, Johnson said. “Our centenary programme will reflect on the past and on the people and developments that make Northern Ireland the great place it is today. The activities will pay tribute to all those who have worked tirelessly to support Northern Ireland throughout the pandemic, and will champion the incredible young people in Northern Ireland who offer so much to the shared success of our United Kingdom.”

Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland secretary, told the Belfast News Letter that the government was considering hosting a meeting of G7 trade and finance ministers – an offshoot of the main G7 meeting of world leaders – in Northern Ireland in June.

He said: “If we’re not trumpeting what’s brilliant about Northern Ireland, and the reasons to invest in Northern Ireland, we can’t expect others to do it for us.”

In the 100 years since its formation, Northern Ireland and its people have enriched our Union beyond measure.

I hope the Centenary programme we have announced today will leave a positive and enduring legacy.

✍🏻 @BelTel

— Brandon Lewis (@BrandonLewis) March 12, 2021

However, Covid-19 and a fraught political climate have overshadowed the centenary. The Orange Order has postponed a planned parade to Stormont, the seat of Northern Ireland’s assembly, because of pandemic restrictions. Uncertainty hangs over other gatherings.

Unionist parties and loyalist groups are waging a campaign against post-Brexit rules that require checks on goods coming in from Great Britain. They have accused Downing Street of betrayal and undermining Northern Ireland’s status in the UK.

Sinn Féin and the SDLP refused to participate in a centenary advisory panel, reflecting Irish nationalism’s enduring sense of grievance that a war of independence wrested 26 counties in the south from British control but not six counties in the north, where a Protestant majority wanted to stay in the UK.


Rory Carroll Ireland correspondent

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Northern Ireland joins in rejection of Boris Johnson's 'stay alert' slogan
‘Four nations’ approach dealt further blow as Stormont announces its own, more cautious plan

Heather Stewart, Rory Carroll and Libby Brooks

12, May, 2020 @6:24 PM

Article image
Fianna Fáil attacks Sinn Féin rejection of DUP compromise offer
Rejection of proposal on Irish language act has cast doubt on resumption of talks aimed at restoring power-sharing in Belfast

Henry McDonald Ireland correspondent

01, Sep, 2017 @2:43 PM

Article image
Northern Ireland assembly reopens three years after collapse
Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill stress need to move forward as they take up senior roles

Henry McDonald in Belfast

11, Jan, 2020 @2:29 PM

Article image
Arlene Foster blames Sinn Féin as Northern Ireland talks stall
Former first minister accuses Gerry Adams’s party of inflexibility and not wanting a deal as devolution deadline approaches

Henry McDonald and Peter Walker

27, Mar, 2017 @8:48 AM

Article image
Boris Johnson wraps up Northern Ireland talks with no sign of progress on reviving power-sharing - as it happened
Rolling coverage of the day’s political developments as they happen, including Boris Johnson’s visit to Northern Ireland

Andrew Sparrow

31, Jul, 2019 @3:17 PM

Article image
Sinn Féin names Michelle O'Neill as new leader in Northern Ireland
O’Neill, 40, replaces Martin McGuinness, who will not be standing in forthcoming assembly elections due to ill health

Henry McDonald Ireland correspondent

23, Jan, 2017 @3:23 PM

Article image
Sinn Féin ​refusal to replace McGuinness set to trigger Northern Ireland elections
After PM holds talks with Northern Ireland leaders, first minister Arlene Foster says Sinn Féin is forcing new election

Henry McDonald and Peter Walker

16, Jan, 2017 @1:47 PM

Article image
What are the priorities for Northern Ireland's restored executive?
Major investment has been promised for region’s struggling public services

Lisa O'Carroll

13, Jan, 2020 @7:19 PM

Article image
Stormont assembly censures Sinn Féin members over funeral
Service for Bobby Storey last June drew a large crowd of mourners in breach of Covid rules

Rory Carroll Ireland correspondent

01, Apr, 2021 @4:35 PM

Article image
Northern Ireland secretary rejects Sinn Féin call for border poll
As Brexit sinks in for towns that voted to remain in EU, Theresa Villiers says there are no grounds for Irish unity referendum

Henry McDonald Ireland correspondent in Newry City

24, Jun, 2016 @4:06 PM