LONDON — British Prime Minister Boris Johnson met political leaders Wednesday in Northern Ireland, where he faces a doubly difficult challenge: restoring the collapsed Belfast government and finding a solution for the Irish border after Brexit.
Northern Ireland’s 1.8 million people have been without a functioning administration for 2 1/2 years, ever since the Catholic-Protestant power-sharing government collapsed over a botched green-energy project. The rift soon widened to broader cultural and political issues separating Northern Ireland’s British unionists and Irish nationalists.
Johnson was meeting with the leaders of the five main political parties in hopes of kick-starting efforts to restore the Belfast government.
“My prime focus this morning is to do everything I can to help that 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,” Johnson said.
Yet opponents say Johnson can’t play a constructive role because his Conservative government relies on support from the Democratic Unionist Party, the largest of Northern Ireland’s pro-British parties. Without the votes of the DUP’s 10 lawmakers in London, Johnson’s minority government would collapse.
Critics say that gives the pro-Brexit DUP an oversized influence with the British government that has unsettled the delicate balance of power in Northern Ireland.
Mary Lou McDonald, leader of the Irish nationalist party Sinn Fein, accused Johnson of being the DUP’s “gofer.”
“He tells us he will act with absolute impartiality. We have told him that nobody believes that,” she said.
Protesters greeted Johnson at Stormont, the seat of the suspended Northern Ireland government outside Belfast, including border residents, steelworkers at a Belfast shipyard threatened with closure and anti-Brexit demonstrators.
Northern Ireland is key to securing the U.K’.s departure from the European Union and is likely to be among the hardest-hit areas if it goes wrong.
A divorce agreement between the U.K. and the EU has foundered largely because of the complex issue of the currently invisible 300-mile (550 kilometer) border between Northern Ireland, which is part of the U.K., and EU member Ireland. An invisible border is crucial to the regional economy, and also underpins the peace process that ended decades of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland.
Both Britain and the EU have promised there will be no hard border after Brexit, but they disagree about how to avoid it.
The EU and Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, came up with a solution known as the backstop — an insurance policy to guarantee an open border if no other solution can be found. But British Brexit-backers loathe the backstop because it locks Britain into EU trade rules to avoid customs checks, something they say will stop the U.K. from striking new trade deals around the world.
Johnson became prime minister last week by promising pro-Brexit Conservatives that the U.K. will leave the EU on the scheduled date of Oct. 31, with or without a divorce deal.
He is insisting the bloc make major changes to May’s deal, which was rejected three times by Britain’s Parliament. He says the backstop must be abolished and is refusing to hold new talks with EU leaders unless they agree.
Johnson sent his Europe adviser, David Frost, to Brussels on Wednesday to deliver that message in person. Downing St. said Frost would tell EU officials that “we will work energetically for a deal but the backstop must be abolished. If we are not able to reach an agreement, then we will, of course, have to leave the EU without a deal. ”
The bloc is equally adamant that Brexit deal won’t be reopened and the backstop must stay.
The stalemate has sent the pound plunging to its lowest levels in more than two years, as businesses warn that no amount of preparation can eliminate the economic damage if Britain crashes out of the bloc without a deal on exit terms and a transition period to smooth the way.
The currency was trading Wednesday at 1.2161, up slightly from a day earlier but still its lowest level since March 2017.
Business confidence has also been battered. Britain’s auto trade body said Wednesday that investment in the industry effectively stopped in the first half of this year amid no-deal fears.
The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders said companies made just 90 million pounds ($110 million) of new investments in January-June, compared with an average annual total of 2.7 billion pounds over the previous seven years. Car production dropped 20.1% in the first half of 2019.
“The fear of no deal is causing investors to sit on their hands,” said chief executive Mike Hawes.
Since he took office a week ago, Johnson has been touring England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland but it has not been a triumphal parade.
Britain’s 2016 vote to leave the EU has strained the bonds among the four nations that make up the U.K. A majority of voters in England and Wales backed leaving in the referendum, while those in Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain.
Johnson has been booed by protesters in the Scottish city of Edinburgh and the Welsh city of Cardiff and accused of playing “Russian roulette” with the agriculture industry by farmers who face high tariffs on their exports to Europe if there is a no-deal Brexit.