Boris Johnson: What will the new prime minister mean for NI?

By Jayne McCormack
BBC News NI Political Reporter

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Boris Johnson brought the spotlight to Ballymena when he opened a plant to build parts for his "Boris buses"

Boris Johnson has been chosen as the new leader of the Conservative and Unionist Party.

He will take over as prime minister on Wednesday and will already have a huge amount of issues in his in-tray.

The former Mayor of London's main connection to Northern Ireland used to be Ballymena, County Antrim, where parts for his fleet of red "Boris buses" are built.

But what will a Boris Johnson premiership mean for Northern Ireland?

Brexit and the backstop

Mr Johnson faces an uphill battle to deliver Brexit by the 31 October deadline.

Media caption,
DUP to meet Boris Johnson to discuss its objectives

Mr Johnson has referred to it as a "monstrosity" that wipes out the UK's sovereignty and he has called for the backstop to be removed from the withdrawal deal.

He believes the EU can be persuaded to reopen the agreement, but says the UK should still prepare for a no-deal Brexit.

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Boris Johnson believes he can succeed where Theresa May failed

He wants to move the talks over the backstop into the future relationship rather than withdrawal agreement - although the EU has repeatedly insisted this will not happen.

Mr Johnson has also not ruled out suspending Parliament to force through a no-deal outcome in order to ensure the UK leaves the EU by Halloween, "do or die".

But that option has become harder for him to follow through, after a move by anti-Brexit MPs last week.

An amendment, passed by both peers and MPs, requires Parliament to be recalled to debate political progress in Northern Ireland between October and December.

It is perhaps fitting that the Brexit debate, defined by the Northern Ireland question, could now be altered because of that last-minute action in Parliament.

Cosying up to the DUP?

Publicly, the DUP kept pretty quiet about who it wanted to see move into Downing Street.

But the party is no stranger to the "Boris effect": the Conservative MP was the keynote speaker at the DUP conference last year.

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Boris Johnson sat in between the DUP leadership at the party conference last November

It will, however, be wary of broken promises.

At the conference, he called for the backstop to be "junked" but then voted for the agreement - including the backstop - during the third meaningful vote in March.

There's also the matter of renewing the confidence-and-supply pact.

The Conservatives needed the votes of the DUP's 10 MPs in order to have a working Commons majority after the 2017 Westminster election, but had to agree to an extra £1bn in spending for Northern Ireland.

While the DUP voted against Theresa May's Brexit deal and threatened the government over the backstop, it is worth saying that the influence the party wields at Westminster is very valuable.

Mr Johnson knows that, which explains why he secured that Stormont photo op with Arlene Foster, after the Conservative hustings in Northern Ireland a few weeks ago.

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The focus will soon move to confidence-and-supply negotiations: watch this space for more on the price the new PM will have to pay, in order to keep his Northern Ireland unionist allies on side.

Stormont talks process

The latest talks to try and restore power-sharing in Northern Ireland began in May.

There are no signs of a political breakthrough any time soon.

Image caption,
Sinn Féin and the DUP have pointed the finger at each other during the course of the talks processes

Mr Johnson is likely to replace the Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley - a Theresa May loyalist - with someone new.

How could that affect the ongoing talks process, which Mrs Bradley has been overseeing?

The rumour mill has been in full flow about who might get the brief.

Names doing the rounds include Michael Gove, Sir Michael Fallon, Gavin Williamson, Conor Burns - who attended the DUP conference with Mr Johnson last year - and even Theresa Villiers, who has already held the post of NI Secretary and was a staunch Brexit campaigner.

Former government chief whip Mark Harper raised eyebrows when he posted a video that appeared to be a pitch for the job - potentially a first for a position that is seen as a relatively low-ranking cabinet role.

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A fresh pair of eyes could possibly help move the Stormont negotiations along - but it's likely to prove as difficult to resolve as Brexit.

During the leadership campaign, Mr Johnson said it is "not the end of the world" if Stormont is not restored by the Brexit deadline, adding to the speculation that direct rule from Westminster could be on the cards.

Legacy and veterans

Image caption,
Six former soldiers are facing prosecution in connection with Troubles-era killings

Among Mr Johnson's commitments is to end prosecutions of Army veterans who served in Northern Ireland.

Many Conservative MPs have called for such a move in recent months.

Mr Johnson, playing to the gallery slightly, also said he would bring forward legislation on the issue before the next general election.

It sparked criticism from some in his own party and other parties in Northern Ireland.

He may find, like with Brexit, that it is easy to make pledges - but far harder to follow them through.

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