UK PM Boris Johnson discusses Brexit conundrum in Northern Ireland

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By Rachael Kennedy  & Reuters
UK PM Boris Johnson discusses Brexit conundrum in Northern Ireland

New UK prime minister Boris Johnson has held talks in Northern Ireland over trying to find a solution to the Irish backstop.

As the only part of the UK to share a land border with the EU, Northern Ireland has become a contentious issue in Brexit negotiations for two main reasons: Northern Ireland voted overwhelmingly in 2016 to remain in the EU, and, perhaps more sensitively, the need to keep a free-flowing border with the Republic of Ireland.

Johnson's predecessor Theresa May, along with the EU, introduced the idea of a backstop as an insurance policy, which would ensure continued trade and no implementation of a physical border on the island of Ireland in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

But Johnson says the idea of a backstop is dead and that he wants to enact Brexit on October 31 with or without a deal with the EU.

His hardline approach has worried many across the UK and the rest of the bloc over what this could mean economically, and for the delicate peace treaty in place between the north and the Republic.

The success of peacetime between unionists and loyalists in the Good Friday Agreement has been, in part, attributed to the abolition of a physical border on the island.

A senior DUP lawmaker who attended a dinner meeting with Johnson on Tuesday evening said possible compromises were discussed - specifically the possibility of putting a time limit on the backstop and other "pragmatic solutions." 

Asked if Johnson was responsive to the suggestions, Donaldson told Irish radio RTE that he would not "negotiate in public."

Ireland's Prime Minister Leo Varadkar on Wednesday again rejected calls for the Withdrawal Agreement to be reopened, saying Ireland "isn't going to be bullied on this issue" as it had "total support" from other EU countries.

But his government has repeatedly said it wants to sit down with Johnson to hear his ideas on the border.

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Johnson has insisted that even without a backstop solution, a physical border would not be erected in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

But Varadkar says a no-deal Brexit would likely lead to a united Ireland.

He said: "People who you might describe as moderate nationalists or moderate Catholics who were more or less happy with the status quo will look more towards a united Ireland."

"And increasingly you see liberal Protestants, liberal unionists starting to ask the questions as to where they feel more at home."

He later rejected any notion of Johnson renegotiating a deal before the October deadline as "totally not in the real world".

On Wednesday, a senior politician in Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party, which props up Johnson's minority government, told the BBC that the chance of the UK leaving without a deal was "significant".

He said: "I think given the response of the Irish government in particular, who I believe are key to this issue of addressing UK concerns about the backstop, I think the prospect of a no deal is significant."