Boris Johnson’s crushing victory raises hopes and fears in Northern Ireland

Pro-Brexit demonstrators outside Downing Street in London on Friday.

Pro-Brexit demonstrators outside Downing Street in London on Friday.   | Photo Credit: ANDREW TESTA


For the first time, the election returned more Irish republican than unionist lawmakers to Parliament

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s crushing election victory gives Britain a chance to move past years of gridlock over Brexit — especially in Northern Ireland, where social and political divides run deep.

“We’re leaving limbo,” said Orlaith McKeever, preparing food for the lunchtime rush at St. George’s Market in Belfast, a redbrick rabbits’ warren of stalls and kiosks.

Thursday’s snap general became a re-run of the 2016 EU membership referendum in which Mr. Johnson championed the Brexit cause.

The Prime Minister ran this campaign on the promise to “get Brexit done” — a simple but effective message with profound implications for Britain’s most politically volatile region.

Constitutional change?

Northern Ireland voted by 56% to remain in the EU in 2016. Since then, it has become central to a Brexit deal with Brussels. Unease spread about the prospect of a no-deal Brexit and the re-emergence of a hard border with EU neighbour Ireland to the south. Border checks are associated with three decades of sectarian violence over British rule of Northern Ireland that left some 3,500 people dead.

The potential removal of an open border — a plank of the 1998 agreement that ended “The Troubles” — has been seen as an unwelcome return to the past.

It also reopened the issue of Northern Ireland’s place in the U.K. with England, Scotland and Wales, and the potential of a united Ireland.

For the first time, the election returned more Irish republican than British unionist lawmakers to the U.K. House of Commons.

The largest republican party Sinn Fein even took the seat of North Belfast from unionist hands for the first time since it was drawn up in 1885.

Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald called it a “historic moment”.

“The discussion around constitutional change is now under way.”

“It’s safe to say that Irish unity will be firmly on the agenda in a way that it has never been before,” said Queen’s University Belfast politics lecturer Jamie Pow.

But he said the combined republican vote share from Thursday “still amounts to a minority”. Those describing themselves as neither republican nor unionist will be key in any vote.

Changes in the offing

They would likely be swayed by changes in economic or political circumstance, including those Brexit is forecast to bring.

Thursday’s results stripped Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party of its “kingmaker” role in the British Parliament. Some have welcomed the DUP’s loss of influence: as hardline pro-Brexit unionists and conservatives, the DUP represented just a 36% vote share of the region in that vote.

Less central role

Now a greater spread of parties has been elected from Northern Ireland this time, although with an 80-strong majority, Mr. Johnson will not need their votes.

That likely leaves the province with a less central role in the coming government, although Mr. Pow suggested they may have an opportunity to play a key role forging relations with the EU.

On a wider scale, the DUP’s loss of influence in London could help kick-start talks for the resumption of the devolved legislative assembly in Stormont, Belfast.

The Assembly has not functioned since January 2017 after the power-sharing executive between the DUP and Sinn Fein collapsed over a mismanaged heating scheme.

With the DUP no longer allied with the Conservatives, there are hopes negotiations due to start on Monday will be given a boost.

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Printable version | Jan 22, 2020 11:52:36 PM |

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