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.”
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.