LONDON (Reuters) – Prime Minister Boris Johnson will visit Northern Ireland on Thursday to talk up the strength of union between Britain’s constituent nations and promise a strong rebound from the coronavirus crisis.
Johnson will also meet Ireland’s new prime minister Micheál Martin for the first time since the formation of a new Irish coalition government in June.
On his first visit to Northern Ireland since the COVID-19 pandemic, Johnson wants to firm up ties badly strained by several years of acrimonious Brexit negotiations.
“As the country begins to get back on its feet in the wake of coronavirus, we cannot simply strive to rebuild, but we must commit to building back stronger than ever,” he said in a statement.
His message echoes that made on a similar trip to Scotland, where polls show support for independence now outstrips that for remaining part of the union.
Northern Ireland’s views on leaving the United Kingdom are still largely split along sectarian lines with many Catholics favouring the creation of a united Ireland while pro-British Protestants favour the status quo.
The dispute fuelled three decades of bloodshed that largely ended with a 1998 peace deal.
Northern Ireland voted 56 to 44% to remain in the European Union in a 2016 Brexit referendum, when the United Kingdom as a whole voted 52 to 48 to leave.
That angered Irish nationalists, who feared they would be cut off from friends and relatives in the Republic of Ireland, one of the EU’s most enthusiastic members – prompting some to call for a referendum on leaving the United Kingdom.
The subsequent Brexit negotiations in turn angered pro-British unionists who were outraged at Johnson’s decision to agree a Brexit deal that will see EU customs rates and regulations remain in place Northern Ireland while the rest of Britain goes its own way.
(Reporting by William James in London and Conor Humphries in Dublin; editing by Stephen Addison)