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Next stop on Boris Johnson’s whistle stop tour of the UK was Northern Ireland today. The usual questions over the backstop arose (no, Boris still hates it), Sinn Féin angled for an Irish Border Poll (sorry guys, very unlikely), and Johnson was left supplicating the DUP for their support in parliament (same old, same old).
But the key aspect of Johnson’s visit – his first as Prime Minister – was to try and re-energise efforts to restore power sharing in Stormont, giving Northern Ireland a functional government. Northern Ireland hasn’t been under direct rule from Westminster since 2007, but it has also been without its own government since 2017. Boris’s task as PM, and pursuing his Brexit agenda, will be made a lot easier if he can resolve this critical impasse.
A spokesperson for No 10 revealed that Johnson understood there had been constructive progress in restoring the power sharing between the DUP and Sinn Féin, but he said “there now needed to be serious and intense engagement to get this done.”
Johnson himself told journalists in the morning before the meetings: “It’s great to be here in Northern Ireland and clearly the people of Northern Ireland have been without a government, without Stormont for two years and six months so my prime focus this morning is to do everything I can to help that get up and running again.”
Newly appointed Northern Ireland Secretary, and the Tory party’s former chief whip, Julian Smith will be central to the formidable task of resolving the seemingly intractable positions of the DUP and Sinn Féin. All attempts to restore the agreement between the two – a provision of the Good Friday Agreement – have so far failed.
This is a serious problem for the current government for one crucial reason: Mark Sedwill, Johnson’s most senior civil servant, has advised that if there is no functioning government in Stormont, then Northern Ireland will have to come back under direct rule from Westminster in the event of a no deal Brexit. While Johnson has claimed he is not angling for a no deal exit, the likelihood of him striking a new deal with the European Union looks vanishingly slim, if both sides stick to their red lines on the backstop.
So, as a no deal Brexit becomes a more realistic prospect by the day, so does the prospect of imposing direct rule on Northern Ireland (if power sharing isn’t restored). Boris has struggled to prove his Unionist credentials. Unionists in Scotland and Northern Ireland are concerned he’s relegated the Union to second place behind securing Brexit by the do-or-die date of 31st October. Imposing direct rule on Northern Ireland won’t help this reputation – just as a no deal exit will lead to the SNP shouting even louder for a second independence referendum in Scotland, imposing direct rule on Northern Ireland will give Sinn Féin plenty of ammunition to call for an Irish border poll.
This all reveals a fundamental problem for Boris. His pursuit of Brexit, at all costs, seems fundamentally incompatible with his other job of maintaining and preserving the sanctity of the Union. He’s leader of the Conservative and Unionist Party, after all.