Belfast Telegraph

Suzanne Breen: Five key issues for Boris Johnson in Northern Ireland

Boris Johnson with DUP’s Nigel Dodds and Arlene Foster at the party’s conference last year
Boris Johnson with DUP’s Nigel Dodds and Arlene Foster at the party’s conference last year
Suzanne Breen

By Suzanne Breen

Brexit: This is the most urgent issue in Boris Johnson's in-tray with Northern Ireland at the centre of the action.

The reason he was so convincingly elected Tory leader is the belief that, after three years of endless dialogue, Johnson is the man to finally take the UK out of the EU.

Theresa May's inability to reach a deal with Brussels minus the backstop was her undoing.

Her successor will head back to try to renegotiate the withdrawal agreement. If the EU doesn't budge - and the overwhelming consensus is that it won't - the stakes become very high indeed.

If Johnson backtracks on his opposition to the backstop, then the DUP's support for his Government is in jeopardy.

He insists a technological solution can be found to prevent a hard border, recalling the spirit of the Moon landings.

His critics dismiss such sentiments as fantasy and predict he will be brought back down to earth quickly.

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Given the Commons deadlock, he may opt for an early Westminster election. Although a hung Parliament would still be the most likely outcome, the DUP would have to be very lucky indeed to hold the balance of power on its own again.

A new secretary of state

Traditionally, this isn't one of the key Cabinet posts, but the importance of Northern Ireland in the Brexit debate means that it's way more significant this time.

There were high hopes when Karen Bradley took office that she would bring an enthusiasm and energy to the job which might just reap rewards. That optimism has proved ill-founded and she will go down as one of the most underwhelming and hapless Secretaries of State we've ever had.

The DUP's Sammy Wilson says her successor will have to be "prepared to talk tough" to the Dublin Government and "to spell out to them the consequences of their continued intransigence".

The DUP will have lobbied hard behind-the-scenes for someone in this mould. The party had very good relations with two previous Secretaries of State, Theresa Villiers and Owen Paterson - both staunch Brexiteers - and had considerable respect for James Brokenshire.

Team Johnson will undoubtedly listen to the DUP's input, but it will also surely be aware that it needs to maintain a positive relationship with Dublin and to rebuild trust with nationalists here. Despite all the speculation about more senior Cabinet jobs, the Northern Ireland portfolio will be one of Johnson's most interesting appointments.

Confidence and supply

The existing deal between the Tories and the DUP is due for imminent review. Expect former Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson to be intimately involved, as he was in the last negotiations two years ago.

The talks

A fresh round of negotiations was announced in a blaze of publicity in the wake of Lyra McKee's murder in April. The lack of progress should be a major embarrassment to both governments, who were very unwise to build up expectations.

There were calls for Theresa May to take a hands-on approach to the talks, as Tony Blair did during his tenure. The general lack of respect for Johnson in every major party bar the DUP means such appeals may not be repeated regarding a role for him.

But the involvement of a more knowledgeable and skilful Secretary of State than Mrs Bradley would be welcomed by many.

Legacy issues

Just a fortnight ago Johnson vowed to end the "unfair" prosecution of Army veterans who had served in Northern Ireland.

Williamson is also a strong supporter of such an amnesty, which would be hugely popular with Tory grassroots. If they try to bring forward legislation along these lines, strong objections from nationalists and legal challenges are likely.

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