LONDON — New British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Wednesday finished his rocky debut tour of the UK in Northern Ireland, where he faces a doubly difficult challenge: Restoring the collapsed Belfast government and finding a solution for the Irish border after Brexit.
Since he took office a week ago, Johnson has been touring England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but it has not been a triumphal parade. After facing protests and political opposition in Scotland and Wales, Johnson met Wednesday with the leaders of Northern Ireland’s five main political parties in hopes of kick-starting efforts to restore the suspended Belfast administration.
Northern Ireland’s 1.8 million people have been without a functioning administration for 2 1/2 years, ever since the Catholic-Protestant power-sharing government collapsed over a botched green-energy project. The rift soon widened to broader cultural and political issues separating Northern Ireland’s British unionists and Irish nationalists.
Johnson said he would “do everything I can to help that get up and running again, because I think that’s profoundly in the interests of people here, of all the citizens here in Northern Ireland.”
But a breakthrough did not look imminent. Opponents say Johnson can’t play a constructive role in Northern Ireland because his Conservative government relies on support from the Democratic Unionist Party, the largest of Northern Ireland’s pro-British parties. Without the votes of the DUP’s 10 lawmakers in London, Johnson’s minority government would collapse.
Critics say that gives the pro-Brexit DUP an oversized influence with the British government, unsettling the delicate balance of power in Northern Ireland.
Mary Lou McDonald, leader of the Irish nationalist party Sinn Fein, accused Johnson of being the DUP’s “gofer.”
“He tells us he will act with absolute impartiality. We have told him that nobody believes that,” she said.
Britain’s 2016 vote to leave the European Union has strained the bonds among the four nations that make up the UK. A majority of voters in England and Wales backed leaving in the referendum, while those in Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain.
Scotland’s nationalist government wants to hold a vote on independence from the UK if Scotland is dragged out of the EU against its will. Similarly, nationalists in Northern Ireland argue there should be a referendum on unification with the Irish republic if there is a damaging no-deal Brexit.
Johnson insists the UK will leave the EU on the scheduled date of Oct. 31, with or without a divorce deal. Economists say a no-deal Brexit would be economically damaging for the whole UK and politically destabilizing for Northern Ireland, the only part of the UK to share a land border with the bloc.
DUP leader Arlene Foster downplayed the risk of a no-deal Brexit, saying Johnson was “focused on finding a deal and we’re here to help him find that deal.”
She said Brexit must be carried out “in a way that does no damage either to the UK, the Republic of Ireland — our neighbors — or the wider European Union.”
A divorce agreement between the UK and the EU has foundered largely because of the complex issue of the 300-mile border between Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland. An invisible border is crucial to the regional economy and underpins the peace process that ended decades of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland.
Both Britain and the EU have promised there will be no hard border after Brexit, but they disagree about how to avoid it.
The EU and Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, came up with a solution known as the backstop — an insurance policy to guarantee an open border if no other solution can be found. But British Brexit-backers loathe the backstop because it locks Britain into EU trade rules to avoid customs checks, something they say will stop the UK from striking new trade deals.
Johnson is refusing to hold new talks with EU leaders unless they agree to scrap the backstop and sent Europe adviser David Frost to Brussels on Wednesday to deliver that message.
Johnson’s office said Frost would tell EU officials that “we will work energetically for a deal but the backstop must be abolished. If we are not able to reach an agreement, then we will, of course, have to leave the EU without a deal.”
The bloc is equally adamant that Brexit deal won’t be reopened and the backstop must stay.
The stalemate has sent the pound plunging to its lowest levels in more than two years, as economists warn a no-deal Brexit would disrupt trade and send Britain into a deep recession.
The currency was trading around $1.22 Wednesday, up slightly from a day earlier but still its lowest level since March 2017.
Business confidence has also been battered. Britain’s auto trade body said Wednesday that investment in the industry effectively stopped in the first half of this year amid no-deal fears.
The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders said companies made just $110 million of new investments between January and June, compared with an average annual total of 2.7 billion pounds. Car production dropped 20.1 percent in the first half of 2019.
“The fear of no deal is causing investors to sit on their hands,” said chief executive Mike Hawes.
On his tour of the UK, Johnson was booed by protesters in both the Scottish city of Edinburgh and the Welsh city of Cardiff. He was also accused of playing “Russian roulette” with the agriculture industry by Welsh farmers who face high tariffs on their exports to Europe if there is a no-deal Brexit.
A variety of protesters greeted Johnson Wednesday in Northern Ireland, including border residents, steelworkers at a Belfast shipyard threatened with closure and anti-Brexit demonstrators.
After the meetings, Nichola Mallon, deputy leader of the Irish nationalist SDLP party, said Johnson “gave us bluff and bluster around Brexit.”
“We went into this meeting concerned that he would have a limited understanding of the complexities and the fragility of this place and those concerns have been confirmed,” she said.
Danica Kirka in London contributed to this story.
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