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Saturday 30 September 2023 Dublin: 15°C
PA Johnson and political representatives in Stormont, Belfast. January 2020
Brian Rowan Boris Johnson's damage to Northern Ireland cannot be easily repaired
The former BBC correspondent says the soon-to-be ex-PM has left in Northern Irish politics in chaos.

LAST UPDATE | Jul 8th 2022, 7:14 AM

THOSE OF US who witnessed events at Stormont in the early weeks of 2020, learned all we needed to know about Boris Johnson – the clown Prime Minister who reduced government to a circus.

Then NI Secretary Julian Smith had spent patient months with Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney piecing together a deal that would put a Northern Executive back in place.

We had been waiting for three years on such a British-Irish initiative – for the type of leadership that would make it possible.

Smith and Coveney presented it in a moment of crafted political theatre. On 9 January 2020 in the dark and freezing cold on Stormont’s hill overlooking Belfast, they published New Decade, New Approach and dared the Northern Ireland parties to reject it.

Within days government was restored in Belfast and Johnson came running – placing himself centre-stage in Stormont’s Great Hall; here to steal a slice of someone else’s success.

His shallowness, his lack of detail, were obvious in the words he stumbled over.

Within weeks, he sacked Smith, the most-popular NI Secretary since Mo Mowlam.


At that moment, we could see how little Johnson cared about this place.

Smith was not a nodding dog. He had fought the Prime Minister on proroguing parliament and hadn’t played along with the no-deal and security cooperation threats on Brexit.

Smith is missed in this place. In recent days, I introduced him as the keynote speaker at a Glencree Peace Centre conference in Belfast. The audience engaged with him as a serious politician, as someone whose interest in Northern Ireland is obvious.

He knows detail. We heard it when he spoke in Parliament recently on his concerns relating to the UK Government’s legacy plan.

A new Prime Minister should consider asking Smith to return here, to fix the latest mess – much of it the product of Johnson’s wrecking ball approach.

For many, Johnson is a figure of fun here; someone characterised by farce.

The former BBC Political Editor in Belfast Stephen Grimason, the journalist who broke the detail of the Good Friday Agreement at Easter 1998, tweeted on a possible going-away present for Johnson:

In Johnson’s world, there is nothing more important than him. His clinging on in the chaos of now a confirmation of that.

Those who ran with him down the blind-alley of Brexit should reflect on that.

He was prepared to leave Northern Ireland behind; the Protocol creating a sea border, and not just new trading arrangements, but fears about Northern Ireland’s place in the Union.

In low-key, sporadic, violence, we watched as it played out on the streets last year.

Brexit was Johnson’s England project. Northern Ireland an afterthought.

‘Wrecking-ball politics’

In the here-and-now, Stormont has collapsed again. Not as dramatically as last time. There are still caretaker ministers, but no Assembly, no Speaker and no Executive.

We are back in the mess that Smith and Coveney had tidied up.

The UK Government under Johnson is rewriting the Brexit script and the story of the Protocol as if they had nothing to do with it.

As a consequence, relationships everywhere are strained and broken – UK-Europe, Britain-Ireland, North-South and at Stormont.

All of this the result of that wrecking-ball politics. It extends beyond Johnson into his unthinking government; a government responsible for the cracks in the Union and the louder ‘New Ireland’ conversation.

If Unity is achieved, they might build a statue to Johnson and Brexit, and to how they have hurried things along.

Track the developments since that referendum – unionists losing their overall majority at Stormont, their second seat in the European Parliament, no longer holding a majority of the Northern Ireland seats at Westminster and Michelle O’Neill now the First Minister designate.

New voters?

In the politics of Northern Ireland, Orange and Green are no longer all of the story. There is a significant third-force – called other. It will have a major say in the future direction of this place.

Johnson has fooled people, here and elsewhere, many of them, more times than once.

His government’s legacy plan – a solo-run initiative – will do nothing for healing and reconciliation. They are building a house that no one will buy.

Their’s is an initiative designed to close down the past, rather than open it up to questions and answers.

In relation to Northern Ireland, retired Political Editor Ken Reid, who spent many years watching Johnson, used just two words to sum him up – “ignorance” and “lies”.

We all remember the denial of the sea border and then the fallout from that lie as it turned the centenary year in Northern Ireland into a crisis.

So much damage has been done here during Johnson’s time. It will not easily be repaired.

No government should allow a re-run of the Stormont pantomime that stretched from 2017 to 2020.

A Conservative government was part of that mess and part of what is happening now.

They should speak to Julian Smith about the importance of relationships. Good working relationships.

Nothing works here unless the two governments are working together.

Boris has broken a lot of what had been patiently built.

Who can fix it? How long will it take?

Brian Rowan is a journalist and author. He is a former BBC correspondent in Belfast. Brian is the author of several books on Northern Ireland’s peace process. His new book, “Political Purgatory – The Battle to Save Stormont and the Play for a New Ireland” is out now at Merrion Press.

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