Boris Johnson gets hero’s welcome at DUP reception, shortly before his Brexit plan for Northern Ireland is reported

The DUP drinks reception has become a must-attend event at the Conservative Party conference since the two parties came together in a confidence and supply agreement in 2017.

Wednesday, 2nd October 2019, 2:20 am
Nigel Dodds MP, Arlene Foster MLA and Sir Jeffrey Donaldson MP listen to the prime minister, Boris Johnson, addressing the DUP drinks reception at the Conservative Party conference on Tuesday October 1 2019

Last night a long queue to get into the gathering in a reception room at Manchester Convention centre snaked along a corridor and down a set of stairs.

When the reception got under way, and it became clear that Boris Johnson was there alongside DUP leaders, the crowd erupted in a chorus of ‘Boris, Boris, Boris,’ a cry that is following the Tory leader wherever he goes at his party’s annual coming together.

The prime minister was the subject of the very same chorus when he entered a reception held by the Northern Ireland Conservatives on Monday night, to which the press was barred. At that event he is said to have joked about his use of the phrase surrender bill, to describe the so-called Benn amendment to stop a ‘no deal’ Brexit, noting that it was a term with which people in NI were familiar.

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Mr Johnson has been making a point of emphasising the Union throughout the conference, attending events hosted by Tories from Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, as well as the DUP reception.

At last night’s occasion, he was frequently interrupted with cheers, as he emphasised his own unionism and his happiness to see so many unionist people in the crowd, which was made up mostly of Tories from Great Britain.

Hours after Mr Johnson’s appearance at the DUP event, the Daily Telegraph was reporting that he will today unveil a plan that will leave Northern Ireland in a special relationship with Europe until 2025. The plan immediately drew criticism from Jim Allister (see below).

At the reception, the prime minister thanked the DUP for helping to prevent a government led by Jeremy Corbyn, and reiterated his determination to implement a UK-wide departure from the EU.

“We will work with our European friends and partners to get this thing done,” he said, echoing the slogan of the conference which is ‘Get Brexit Done’.

“But I am committed above all to Northern Ireland and to the economy of Northern Ireland and to all the successes you are having.

“I am very sad by the way talking about buses [a reference to a humorous comment by Arlene Foster about the prospect of the DUP being thrown under a bus by Mr Johnson] I was very sad to see what happened to Wrightbus.”

To laughter, Mr Johnson laid the blame at the mayor of London, who unlike the previous one [him] had not given the Ballymena firm fresh orders.

He added: “I am very much encouraged by the good news we have had from Harland and Wolff.”

Mr Johnson said that Northern Ireland was one of the best places to do business.

“And why is that? Because Northern Ireland is part of the Union between Great Britain and Northern Ireland [crowd roars] and always will be.”

The prime minister said that when he looked out at the “sea of eager happy faces tonight supporting our precious Union I know it is in good shape and that we unionists are in good heart”.

The DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds and the party leader Arlene Foster also both spoke to cheers and applause from the crowd, restating their own commitment to the Union.

As the reception came to a close, Mr Dodds told the News Letter: “It was a fantastic event. The biggest we have had by far. It is wonderful to see so many people coming out who are enthusiastic, not just support, enthusiastic for the Union. Every mention of the Union got a tremendously positive response.”

He said the prime minister had made clear that “he is a unionist through and through” and had sent out a “very strong message of solidarity in terms of the unionist position across the United Kingdom”.

Arlene Foster said: “I think it is quite an amazing turnout. It is wonderful to hear the enthusiasm for the Union.”

Asked if afraid of being thrown under a bus by the PM, Mr Dodds said that the only bus the prime minister was talking about was Wrightbus: “He made clear that he stands with the unionist people.”

Mrs Foster said: “We are working very well with this prime minister in a way that unfortunately didn’t happen with the last prime minister.”

Two hours after the reception ended, the Daily Telegraph reported on the UK proposal, which is said to have been briefed to major EU capitals yesterday.

The paper said that London will accept the need for a regulatory border between the UK and Northern Ireland in the Irish Sea for four years — and customs checks between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

The Telegraph reports that the UK’s proposed replacement for the existing Irish backstop is expected to face fierce opposition from EU leaders.