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'Brexit election' raises hopes and fears in Northern Ireland

Thursday's snap general became a re-run of the 2016 EU membership referendum in which Johnson championed the Brexit cause.

pixabay.com, 2019

BLEFAST – Prime Minister Boris Johnson's crushing election victory gives Britain a chance to move past years of gridlock over Brexit -- especially in Northern Ireland, where social and political divides run deep.

"We're leaving limbo," said Orlaith McKeever, preparing food for the lunchtime rush at St. George's Market in Belfast, a redbrick rabbits' warren of stalls and kiosks.

Brexit-voting music trader Lawrence John, 69, also reflected relief that the stalled process of extricating Britain from the European Union after nearly five decades was finally moving ahead.

"Like many, many people I'm sick of all this Brexit stuff. Three-and-a-half years ago there was a referendum to decide whether we were going to leave," he told AFP.

"We're just finally getting news that it can actually happen after all this time," he said after Johnson's Conservatives won their biggest majority since the heyday of Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s.

Thursday's snap general became a re-run of the 2016 EU membership referendum in which Johnson championed the Brexit cause.

The prime minister ran this campaign on the promise to "get Brexit done" -- a simple but effective message with profound implications for Britain's most politically volatile region.

CONSTITUTIONAL CHANGE?

Northern Ireland voted by 56 percent to remain in the European Union in 2016. Since then, it has become central to a Brexit deal with Brussels.

Unease spread about the prospect of a no-deal Brexit and the re-emergence of a hard border with EU neighbour Ireland to the south.

Border checks are associated with three decades of sectarian violence over British rule of Northern Ireland that left some 3,500 people dead.

The potential removal of an open border -- a plank of the 1998 agreement that ended "The Troubles" -- has been seen as an unwelcome return to the past.

It also reopened the issue of Northern Ireland's place in the United Kingdom with England, Scotland and Wales, and the potential of a united Ireland.

For the first time, the election returned more Irish republican than British unionist lawmakers to the UK House of Commons.

The largest republican party Sinn Fein even took the seat of North Belfast from unionist hands for the first time since it was drawn up in 1885.

Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald called it a "historic moment". "The discussion around constitutional change is now underway," she told Irish broadcaster RTE Friday.

"It's safe to say that Irish unity will be firmly on the agenda in a way that it has never been before," Queen's University Belfast politics lecturer Jamie Pow told AFP.

But he said the combined republican vote share from Thursday "still amounts to a minority". Those describing themselves as neither republican nor unionist will be key in any vote.

They would likely be swayed by changes in economic or political circumstance, including those Brexit is forecast to bring.

A LOST VOICE

Thursday's results stripped Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party of its "kingmaker" role in the British parliament -- the outcome many analysts believe Johnson sought.

It had propped up the government of Johnson's predecessor, Theresa May, after she failed to secure a majority in the 2017 election.

Some have welcomed the DUP's loss of influence: as hardline pro-Brexit unionists and conservatives, the DUP represented just a 36 percent vote share of the region in that vote.

"They wielded power for themselves, not for the greater good of Northern Ireland," said McKeever in St. George's Market.

Now a greater spread of parties has been elected from Northern Ireland this time, although with an 80-strong majority, Johnson will not need their votes.

That likely leaves the province with a less central role in the coming government, although Pow suggested they may have an opportunity to play a key role forging relations with the EU.

A KICKSTART

On a wider scale, the DUP's loss of influence in London could help kickstart talks for the resumption of the devolved legislative assembly in Stormont, Belfast.

The assembly has not functioned since January 2017 after the power-sharing executive between the DUP and Sinn Fein collapsed over a mismanaged heating scheme.

With the DUP no longer allied with the Conservatives, there are hopes negotiations due to start on Monday will be given a boost.

"The new arithmetic at Westminster will give the DUP much greater incentive to reach a deal with Sinn Fein," said Pow.

"If it wants to remain relevant, it will need to show voters that it can deliver."