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Boris Johnson visits Northern Ireland amid unionist tension

Sinn Féin has refused to meet Prime Minister Boris Johnson on his visit to Northern Ireland.

The party described his trip on Friday as a publicity stunt.

Mr Johnson said he was “always happy to meet all sides” but had been told Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill of Sinn Féin was “otherwise engaged”.

First Minister Arlene Foster urged him ditch what she called the “intolerable” post-Brexit arrangements known as the Northern Ireland Protocol.

It came into effect in January as part of the Brexit deal and means Northern Ireland remains in the EU’s single market for goods, while the rest of the UK has left, so checks are required on some goods crossing the Irish Sea.

Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader Mrs Foster said the protocol was unworkable, had the backing of no unionist parties and created societal division and economic harm rather than protecting the Belfast Agreement that effectively brought to an end Northern Ireland’s Troubles.

Arlene Foster and Boris Johnson

Reuters

“Whilst grace periods have been extended unilaterally, we need a permanent solution so business can plan and the integrity of the United Kingdom internal market can be restored,” said Mrs Foster, speaking after meeting the prime minister at a Covid-19 vaccination centre in Enniskillen, County Fermanagh.

Mr Johnson said the government’s action to postpone the full implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol was “lawful and indeed right in view of the impact on the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement and the need to have consent from both communities”.

“The most important thing about the protocol is that it should guarantee the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement,” he said.

“There’s got to be an east-west consent… as well as a north-south consent so that’s what we’re doing.”

‘No plans to meet’

Ms O’Neill, Northern Ireland’s deputy first minister, said she and her party’s president Mary Lou McDonald had a “long-standing request” to meet Mr Johnson.

Boris Johnson arriving at vaccination centre

Pacemaker

They wanted to discuss “commitments which he and his government have reneged on” as well as his “reckless and partisan approach to the Irish protocol”, she said.

“He did not facilitate the meeting,” added Ms O’Neill. “I have no plans to meet with him today.”

Sinn Féin MP John Finucane went further, describing the prime minister’s visit as a “very superficial PR exercise”.

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Analysis box by Enda McClafferty, NI political editor

This visit feels like the first step in the prime minister’s own pathway to recovery as he seeks to repair badly damaged relations with unionists.

It was no surprise that pathway included an early trip to Fermanagh – the home of Arlene Foster.

Even before he arrived, his advance party had set the stage releasing details of events to mark Northern Ireland’s centenary.

But it will take more than a special postmark, a concert and a centenary rose to heal the unionist hurt.

Far from being the union’s chief cheerleader, Boris Johnson is regarded by many unionists as the prime minister who betrayed Northern Ireland by agreeing to the protocol which created the Irish Sea border.

It is going to be a tricky visit for the prime minister labelled a “lousy unionist” by an Orange Order leader.

It is no surprise that much of the visit’s focus was on the battle against Covid-19 and the successful rollout of the UK’s vaccine programme.

But until he comes up with a political vaccine to eradicate the Northern Ireland Protocol, the Boris Johnson pathway to unionist recovery will not be smooth.

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Health Minister Robin Swann said the success of Northern Ireland’s Covid-19 vaccine programme “shows the strength of the union”.

But the UUP MLA (Member of the Legislative Assembly) warned that the Northern Ireland Protocol had brought challenges, particularly in terms of medical supplies.

‘Incredible’ work

Earlier on Friday, Mr Johnson commended the military and emergency response teams at Aldergrove in County Antrim for their work throughout the Covid-19 pandemic.

Boris Johnson meeting the Army

Army medics were deployed to hospitals in Northern Ireland to assist staff dealing with a surge in coronavirus cases over the winter.

Mr Johnson thanked them for their “incredible” work in Belfast’s Nightingale Hospital, where some of them gave patient care.

The prime minister also met scientists involved in vaccine research at Queen’s University Belfast.

His last engagement in Northern Ireland was at medical 3D printing company Axial 3D in Belfast on Friday evening.

The prime minister last visited Northern Ireland in August – his first trip since power sharing was restored in January 2020 after a three-year hiatus.

On that trip, he held talks with Mrs Foster and Ms O’Neill at Hillsborough Castle and also addressed criticism of plans to celebrate Northern Ireland’s centenary.

Before his visit on Friday, Mr Johnson announced official events to mark the centenary of Northern Ireland.

He said the events would reflect on what made Northern Ireland “the great place it is today”.

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BBC News – UK Politics

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