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Brexit: Northern Ireland feels ignored by Boris Johnson’s government

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NORTHERN IRELAND — The UK government has consistently sidelined and misunderstood Northern Ireland’s role in the Brexit process, and its treatment of the country is getting worse under Boris Johnson, politicians from the province have told Business Insider.

Northern Irish politicians, whose voters voted by 56% to 44% against Brexit, accused the UK government of failing to grasp the complexities of Northern Ireland, and of ignoring public opinion there in order to satisfy the Democratic Unionist Party, which props up Johnson’s minority government.

At the centre of the disagreement is the question of how to keep the Northern Ireland border with Ireland free of checks once the UK leaves the EU and the trade and customs rules that come with membership.

Under a deal agreed by the UK’s last prime minister, Theresa May, all of the UK would remain tied to an array of EU rules if a solution to the border problem is not found before the end of the Brexit transition period. Northern Ireland would stay fully-aligned with EU rules and regulations.

However, May’s successor Boris Johnson has demanded that EU leaders rip up this agreement and insisted that the UK will leave the EU with or without a deal on October 31.

Leaving without a deal would have huge ramifications for Northern Ireland. It would almost certainly lead to new checks on the border, harming businesses and potentially triggering civil unrest and an escalation in sectarian violence.

Read more: These business owners on the Irish border fear a no-deal Brexit could soon wreck their livelihoods

But despite the gravity of the situation, Northern Ireland has not had a government since January 2017, when a row between the two largest parties — the DUP and Sinn Fein — caused the collapse of the executive and the assembly. Partly as a result politicians in the province, and the voters they represent, now feel sidelined

‘Alternative arrangements misses the point.’

Stephen Farry MLA.
Niall Carson/PA Images via Getty Images

Stephen Farry, deputy leader of Northern Ireland’s Alliance Party, said the UK government’s approach to avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland had been”overly-simplistic” and was “missing the point.”

Farry said UK ministers were focusing on technical aspects of the border but ignoring the importance of identity, and were failing to realise that any change to the status quo would have negative ramifications.

He told Business Insider: “The failure of the UK government to appreciate the complexities of what they are dealing with in Northern Ireland has led to a situation where it is in a stand-off with the EU.”

Michel Barnier [the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator] has visited the border four of five times, while Theresa May visited it once in a very controlled manner. Boris Johnson has never been anywhere near it

Farry said: “You have people creating overly-simplistic solutions. Alternative arrangements misses the point. There seems to be this notion in the Conservative party that all they need to do is find a cunning way of avoiding physical checks at the border, and then that’s the box ticked and time to move on.

“But they’re missing the point that the backstop was designed to address a much wider range of issues. They’re responding to only one part of the problem — and that’s why they’re probably going to fail.”

He said Northern Ireland was “not being listened to” by the people “put in front of us” by the UK government.

“Michel Barnier [the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator] has visited the border four of five times, while Theresa May visited it once in a very controlled manner. Boris Johnson has never been anywhere near it,” he said.

‘It’s the old adage, if you can bought, you can be sold. And I have no doubt that the DUP will be.’

Claire Hanna MLA.
Liam McBurney/PA Images via Getty Images)

Claire Hanna of the Irish nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party, said there had been a “desperate worsening” of relations between Westminster and Northern Ireland since Johnson became prime minister.

“Theresa May was inept and duplicitous but she did introduce and sign up to the concept of a backstop. In meetings with her, she clearly did understand and acknowledge the fundamental point,” Hanna told Business Insider.

She said the UK government’s “failure to grasp the damage a no deal would do here and failure to acknowledge the realities of where and how a border needs to be applied are really alarming.”

Hanna accused Johnson of faux opposition to the backstop, which in its current form would keep the UK in a customs union with the EU and Northern Ireland fully-aligned with EU rules, in the absence of a solution for the border.

She said Johnson would support a tweaked version of the backstop if his Conservative government wasn’t being propped up by the staunchly unionist DUP.

“Whether it’s an election pre-October 31 or afterwards, I have got very little doubt that ultimately, there is going be a backstop. It’s the old adage, if you can bought, you can be sold. And I have no doubt that the DUP will be,” she said.

Northern Ireland has been ‘totally and completely ignored’

Steve Aiken MLA.
Brian Lawless/PA Images via Getty Images

Steve Aiken, the Ulster Unionist Party’s chief whip and finance spokesperson, agreed with Hanna.

Like the DUP, the UK government, and most Conservative MPs, the UUP opposes the backstop. However, Aiken said Prime Minister Johnson would be prepared to accept it, if the DUP was not propping his government.

“Boris only cares about Northern Ireland because the backstop is the logjam,” he told Business Insider.

He said Northern Ireland had been “totally and completely ignored” by the UK government since the 2016 referendum, and burst into laughter when asked whether relations had improved under the new prime minister.

Aiken also said Johnson had made a “more than fundamental mistake” by deciding to get rid of Jonathan Caine, who had served as a special advisor to numerous UK Northern Ireland secretaries for nearly thirty years.

Caine is regarded as one of the most knowledgeable figures on Northern Ireland. The New Statesman’s Patrick Maguire reported that MPs joked said he, rather than government ministers, ran the department for Northern Ireland.

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