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What Does British Election Results Mean For Ireland?


British Prime Minister Boris Johnson left no doubt how he interprets a huge election victory.


PRIME MINISTER BORIS JOHNSON: We will get Brexit done on time, by the 31 of January - no ifs, no buts, no maybes. Leaving the European Union as one United Kingdom...

JOHNSON: The United Kingdom currently includes Northern Ireland. So what's Brexit mean for neighboring Ireland, which will stay in the European Union? Previous Brexit efforts collapsed in part over how to manage the border between those two Irelands. Fintan O'Toole is a columnist for the Irish Times and joins us from Dublin via Skype. Welcome to the program.

FINTAN O'TOOLE: Thank you very much, Steve.

INSKEEP: How did people respond to the election where you are?

O'TOOLE: It's a real mixed feeling, I think. In the short term, I think, in Ireland, there's some relief that Boris Johnson will at least have a clear parliamentary majority, which means he can at least get the withdrawal agreement that's been negotiated with the European Union through. On the other side, there's huge regret that Brexit's going to happen. I mean, most people in Ireland are very sad about it because it's bad for us. It's probably bad for the European Union. And there's not a huge amount of trust in Boris Johnson, when you think about how all of this might unfold over the next few years.

INSKEEP: Although your prime minister said it's a positive outcome, the idea being, I think, that anything is better than this constant uncertainty.

O'TOOLE: Yes, that's absolutely true. You know, it's been very frustrating and very, very worrying. And, of course, you've got still a fragile political situation in Northern Ireland. So you don't need that anxiety. It would be nice to think that the anxiety would end on January 31, as we heard in that clip. The problem is that "Get Brexit Done" is a slogan. You know, it's a very effective slogan, as it turned out, but it's not a plan. And we still don't really know, extraordinarily, you know, more than three years down the road, what kind of Brexit the British government wants. Where are they going to end up with this whole thing?

INSKEEP: Do you have any idea, under Boris Johnson, how the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland will be managed?

O'TOOLE: Well, so what we know is that Boris Johnson effectively capitulated. He did what he said no British prime minister could ever do, which is, in effect, in economic terms, to move the border away from the island of Ireland and to create what's being called a border in the Irish Sea. So effectively, you're going to have a border for goods passing from Great Britain into Northern Ireland, so this is pretty extraordinary. I mean, it's like saying, we're going to have a border between, you know, New Mexico and Alabama.


O'TOOLE: You know, they're supposed to be part of the same state.


O'TOOLE: And so from the Irish point of view, this is welcome.

INSKEEP: Well, the Irish point of view - this is welcome. Why? Because it gives you an opportunity to - I don't know - get back Northern Ireland? Is that what might happen here?

O'TOOLE: Well, no - well, simply because it stops the thing everybody was so afraid of, which was a hard border on the island of Ireland itself. However, it has big implications, right? So it's sort of saying Northern Ireland is going to have a very different Brexit from the rest of the U.K. So we heard in that clip from Boris Johnson saying, we're leaving as one United Kingdom. That's just simply not true. And I don't think he's thought through what the implications of this might be over the next 10 years.

INSKEEP: Does this essentially mean that, in a few seconds, that Brexit is going to fail for Northern Ireland?

O'TOOLE: Well, it could mean that it's good for Northern Ireland because it becomes, you know, both inside and outside the European Union, which might be a good thing. But in terms of identity and questions of belonging and all of those kind of questions which we've had for hundreds of years, it doesn't really help.

INSKEEP: Mr. O'Toole, thank you so much.

O'TOOLE: Pleasure.

INSKEEP: Fintan O'Toole is a columnist with The Irish Times and also author of "Heroic Failure: Brexit And The Politics Of Pain." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.