Johnson makes bid to revive Belfast assembly as no-deal Brexit looms

LONDON, Bill Heaney (dpa)- British Prime Minister Boris Johnson met five political parties in Northern Ireland in an attempt to revive the local parliament, the Press Association (PA) reported on Wednesday, as the growing potential for a no-deal Brexit overshadowed the talks.
"Clearly the people in Northern Ireland have been without a government ... for two years and six months, so 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," he said.

Northern Ireland has been without a functioning regional assembly since 2017 after the two largest parties in the power-sharing government - the pro-British Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and the Irish republican Sinn Fein - fell out over a controversial renewable heat scheme run by DUP leader Arlene Foster.
They are also on opposite sides of the Brexit debate, with the DUP and other unionists in favour and Irish nationalists and the cross-community Alliance Party opposed.
Because Johnson relies on the 10 DUP members of the London parliament to prop up his minority government, the other parties say Johnson cannot be impartial with them.
"We believe in complete impartiality and that's what we are going to observe," Johnson insisted, as cited by PA.
Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald said this claim was "laughable" and "nobody believes that," PA reported.
Johnson had spent the previous evening having dinner with the DUP, about which Nichola Mallon, the deputy leader of the smaller Irish nationalist SDLP party, said: "It sends a message that he has a cosy relationship with one party here in Northern Ireland and that's damaging to our peace process."
Foster defended the DUP's parliamentary arrangement with Johnson's Conservative Party, pointing out that it had brought an extra 1 billion pounds to the province.
Brexit has loomed large over the region as Britain's departure from the European Union - taking Northern Ireland with it - could force the reimposition of customs and security checks with the Republic of Ireland, which will remain in the EU.
The 1998 Good Friday Agreement that ended decades of violent conflict between the British unionists and Irish nationalists included a guarantee of no physical border on the island of Ireland.
Johnson's spokesman told PA the talks with the Northern Ireland parties "also included Brexit, where the prime minister made clear that the UK would be leaving the EU on October 31 come what may, and restated his intention to do so with a deal."
The DUP's Foster said her party is "focused on ... supporting the prime minister in trying to get a deal," but warned Brussels to offer a "sensible" one.
If Britain leaves without a deal, the so-called backstop kicks in, keeping Northern Ireland more closely aligned with the EU, thereby keeping its border open. Unionists and Johnson oppose the backstop as they say it will separate the province off from the rest of the United Kingdom and want it scrapped.
"It is very clear it is the backstop that has caused all of the difficulties with the Withdrawal Agreement and therefore that needs to be the subject of focused negotiations to deal with it and therefore we will support the prime minister in doing that," Foster said.
Sinn Fein's McDonald said a no-deal Brexit would be a catastrophe. "We set out very clearly that this would be catastrophic for the Irish economy, for Irish livelihoods, for our society, for our politics and for our peace accord," PA cited her as saying.
Johnson was met in Belfast with protests from anti-Brexit activists, Irish language campaigners and the families of people killed by British troops during the conflict, PA reported.
He also faced protests from workers whose jobs are at threat at the world-famous Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast, where the Titanic was built and whose giant yellow cranes tower over the cityscape.

Thursday, August 1st 2019
Bill Heaney (dpa)

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