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Boris talks Brexit in Northern Ireland

July 31, 2019

The British prime minister's Brexit policy has divided Northern Ireland's main political parties. He wants to take the UK out of the EU without a Brexit deal if Brussels refuses to drop the controversial Irish backstop.

Boris Johnson in Belfast
Image: Getty Images/AFP/

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson met with the leaders of Northern Ireland on Wednesday to discuss a controversial Brexit deal and how to resolve the British territory's years-long political crisis.

The leaders of Northern Ireland's biggest political parties are split on Johnson's pledge to only sign a proposed withdrawal deal with the EU if it removes a provision known as the Irish backstop.

The backstop requires both sides to keep an open border between Northern Ireland and EU-member Republic of Ireland. The EU and the Republic have refused to drop the arrangement.

Johnson's government fears that the backstop could keep the UK too closely tied to the EU or risk creating an internal border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

Read more: Brexit uncertainty compounding woes of Irish farmers

DUP sticking with Boris

Those fears are shared by the pro-British Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), a Northern Irish party that props up Johnson's minority Conservative government.

After meeting Johnson on Wednesday in Belfast, DUP leader Arlene Foster said she believes it's still possible to resolve the Irish border issue with the EU.

"There are ways to deal with this issue if there is a willingness on both sides," Foster told reporters. "So I hope Dublin will dial down the rhetoric and there will be a willingness to engage with our prime minister."

Johnson has pledged to withdraw the UK from the EU by the Brexit deadline of October 31 without a deal if the EU refuses to abandon the provision.

Read more: Northern Ireland's David Trimble to take UK government to court over backstop

"If they really can't do it then clearly we have to get ready for a no-deal exit," Johnson said Tuesday, adding: "It's up to the EU — this is their call."

That has spooked investors, who fear that a disorderly Brexit could spark a deep economic downturn. The pound has in recent days fallen to its lowest levels against the dollar in more than two years, trading at 1.2161 on Wednesday morning.

Anti-Brexit demonstrators protest outside Stormont house as Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson visits Belfast, Northern Ireland
During the 2016 Brexit referendum, a majority of Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EUImage: Getty Images/AFP/P. Faith

Sinn Fein's warning

Northern Ireland's Sinn Fein party, which favors reuniting the North with the Republic, vehemently opposes a no-deal exit.

"In the event of a hard Brexit and a crash Brexit, I don't know for the life of me how anybody could sustain an argument that things remain the same," Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald told BBC radio.

She warned that the return of a hard border would wreck the Northern Irish economy and threaten a delicate peace deal known as the 1998 Good Friday agreement.

The accord ended decades of sectarian violence between pro-British protestants and pro-Irish Catholics known as The Troubles.

Read more: Fact check: As Brexit looms, how dependent is Ireland on British trade?

No government in sight

Johnson also pledged to help all Northern Irish parties end a spat that has left the region without a government for two and a half years.

Under the 1998 peace deal, pro-British and pro-Irish parties share power in government. The last administration collapsed over an energy project dispute.

Johnson said he would "do everything I can to help that [the government] 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."

amp/rs (AP, Reuters, AFP)

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