Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss have told Conservative party members in Belfast they will “fix” the Northern Ireland protocol should they become the UK’s next prime minister.
Mr Sunak, the UK’s former chancellor of the exchequer, and foreign secretary Liz Truss, are the remaining candidates in the contest to become the next leader of the Tory party. They were participating in a Northern Ireland hustings event on Wednesday.
It is one of a series of such events taking place around the UK as Conservative party members prepare to vote for their next leader. The result will be announced on September 5th.
Addressing approximately 200 Northern Ireland Conservatives in a hotel on the outskirts of Belfast, both politicians restated their commitment to making sure the controversial Northern Ireland Protocol Bill becomes law. Mr Sunak said he would also “seek to talk to Europe, Ireland and the French to see if we can find a negotiated outcome”.
Ms Truss — who introduced the Bill in parliament — defended the legislation as “absolutely legal” and necessary “to restore the primacy of the Belfast Good Friday Agreement” and she would be “very clear with people like [the Speaker of the US House of Representatives] Nancy Pelosi exactly what I think about this and what we need to do”.
The Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, which is making its way through parliament, will give the British government the power to scrap unilaterally parts of the protocol — the part of the Brexit withdrawal agreement that avoided a hard border on the island of Ireland by placing a customs and regulatory border in the Irish Sea.
Restoration of Stormont
Northern Ireland is without a devolved Assembly at Stormont because the DUP, which opposes the protocol, has refused to re-enter government until the issues around the protocol are resolved to its satisfaction.
Neither politician mentioned restoration of Stormont in their speeches, but in response to questions from the audience said the problem would not be solved until the Northern Ireland protocol is “fixed”.
Ms Truss appeared to indicate that a solution could come before the Bill becomes law — which could take up to a year — and said that “as we make progress on the Northern Ireland protocol bill we will see powersharing re-established in Northern Ireland”.
Mr Sunak said there was “probably not an enormous amount of disagreement” between the two candidates on the restoration of Stormont but “if that negotiated outcome is there it will be far quicker than waiting for the Bill to pass, so it’s worth at least trying — but be in no doubt about my resolve to fix the situation with the protocol, which I think will unlock powersharing and bring people back together”.
Separately, Ms Truss told reporters she would tell the North’s politicians “to get back around the table and form a government.”
Asked if she would reverse the decriminalisation of abortion in Northern Ireland — which was legalised in Westminster while Stormont was suspended in 2019 — Ms Truss was applauded when she replied: “We are in the United Kingdom and we need our laws to apply right across the United Kingdom, that is what being a union is.”