UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson was in Northern Ireland on May 17th to calm tensions generated by the recent regional elections and dissatisfaction with the Northern Ireland Protocol.
In a historic shift, Sinn Fein, the Irish nationalist party, won more seats than the Democratic Unionist Party in the National Assembly on May 9th elections. Under the Good Friday Agreement, Northern Ireland must form a coalition government between Irish and Unionist parties, but the DUP announced immediately after the elections that it would not agree to a government until it had guarantees of changes in the Northern Ireland Protocol. Any changes to the Brexit agreement have to be worked out between London and Brussels. Northern Ireland has no direct power to change the protocol.
Dissatisfaction with the protocol has been growing among Unionists and in parts of the UK outside of Northern Ireland. Now the polemics of the protocol have conflated with Northern Irish politics, causing a stalemate in a region with a history of violence. Johnson’s visit was an attempt to smooth the transition to a new government.
During his visit, Johnson held close door talks with the five political parties that won seats in the election and then toured Thales missile factory in East Belfast. He characterized the meetings as “robust” and said that all five parties acknowledged the protocol had problems that needed to be fixed.
“All five of them want to get the government of Northern Ireland up and running again,” the Belfast Telegraph reported the Prime Minister said. “That’s my priority and it’s where I come in as I’m the Prime Minister of the whole of the UK. I’ve got to find a way of getting the balance of the Good Friday Agreement respected and getting both traditions, both communities here in Northern Ireland to come together for the benefit of the people of Northern Ireland. That’s what today is all about.”
Johnson also seemed to agree with calls for the elected deputies to have their salary reduced until they got Northern Ireland’s government up and running again.
Johnson also directly addressed the issue of renegotiating the Northern Ireland Protocol with Brussels.
He said he wanted changes to the protocol, “ironing out the problems, stopping some of these barriers” to goods crossing the Irish Sea from Great Britain, “to be done in a consensual way with our friends and partners in Brussels.”
“But to get that done, to have the insurance, we need to proceed with a legislative solution at the same time,” he added.
Legislation to unilaterally override the protocol is expected to be brought forward in the UK parliament this week.
The day following Johnson’s visit, BBC Radio Ulster reported that sources within the DUP had said the party would not elect an assembly speaker, the first step to forming a government, this week even if London proposes legislation to change the protocol.
Bridget Ryder is Spain-based writer. She has written on politics, environment, and culture for American and international publications. She holds degrees in Spanish and Catholic Studies.