Northern Ireland

Tory leadership: Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt face NI Conservatives

Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt Image copyright Reuters/PA

Conservative leadership contenders Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt have both been talking at length about Northern Ireland in recent weeks.

And, on Tuesday, they were at a hustings near Belfast to persuade local party members to back one of them for prime minister.

Northern Ireland and the Irish border is a major issue facing the UK's future leader.

So how did each candidate fare in front of Northern Ireland's Conservatives?

BBC News NI spoke to some of those who attended the hustings to gauge reaction.

Jeremy Hunt supporters

Sheila Bodel said Mr Hunt "felt more prime ministerial" in how he answered the questions.

"Boris Johnson doesn't have as good a plan. Jeremy Hunt knows nothing on the backstop can be finalised without the EU, but he has the negotiating skills to get it done."

She added that Mr Hunt was "more positive" on restoring Stormont.

Image caption Sheila Bodel said she felt Jeremy Hunt was "more prime ministerial"

"Boris Johnson wants to get it done, but isn't for doing very much, or so it sounded to me."

Aideen Rahilly, one of a handful of audience members who raised her hand when Mr Johnson asked who would support another extension to the Brexit deadline, said she was less than impressed with both men, but that Mr Hunt was "the lesser of two evils".

The remain voter said she did not think "the leadership in England understand the dire consequences for Northern Ireland of a no-deal Brexit".

On the subject of restoring Stormont, Ms Rahilly said "nothing they said gave me confidence".

"Jeremy Hunt did say that he would keep Karen Bradley as secretary of state - she doesn't command the respect of politicians here."

Boris Johnson supporters

Keir Crozier said he wasn't bowled over by Mr Johnson's performance, adding: "I laughed more than I agreed."

But he insisted he would still trust him to take the UK out of the EU.

"Boris Johnson will stick to what he's said and take us out, if necessary, on World Trade Organisation (WTO) terms.

"Jeremy Hunt supported remain in the EU referendum, meaning we're likely to end up with a deal not getting through Parliament."

Last year, Mr Johnson denounced the backstop and said it needed to be "junked", before going on to vote for Theresa May's withdrawal agreement just four months later.

Image caption Boris Johnson supporters Bentley Robinson and Keir Crozier

Mr Crozier said he could "forgive" Mr Johnson for that, adding that he'd have done the same thing rather than risk no Brexit at all.

Meanwhile, he said the restoration of Stormont may come down to "which of them is willing to bite the bullet and implement direct rule".

Bentley Robinson, who came to the event with "Back Boris" badges, felt Mr Johnson had created "excitement in the room" and, while he had nothing against Mr Hunt, said that personality trumped substance every time.

Mr Robinson said he believed Mr Johnson was "a unionist" and that there would not be "a border down the Irish Sea" in the event of Brexit.

But, on Stormont, he added: "I don't believe there's anything that tells us one is better than the other.

"They both understand they need to get more involved."

Of course, not all Conservatives in the room have made up their mind yet.

The undecided voter

Roger Lomas said his voting preference changes "by the hour". But who won him over on Tuesday?

"I am more confused than ever because both gave good performances in a different style," he said.

Image caption Roger Lomas was critical of Boris Johnson's decision to speak at the DUP party conference

He has been critical of Boris Johnson and other Conservative MPs in the past for attending DUP events, while not giving the same level of attention to the Northern Ireland wing of the Tory party.

"We have to have a situation where if anybody comes over here to speak to the DUP, they come and speak to their own party first," he said.

He added that a no-deal Brexit "has to be on the table, we're not rolling over for Europe" and said, in terms of Stormont, that some issues should not be devolved to Northern Ireland.

"I disagree with the idea that all our LGBT and abortion matters are devolved. At the end of the day, London is in charge."

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