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Showdown with Truss beckons if the DUP does not start inching towards office

Foreign secretary expected a rapid restoration of executive and assembly as Bill to disapply NI protocol passed through Commons stages

Liz Truss now appears almost certain to be the UK’s next prime minister, barring some extraordinary gaffe. She has achieved immunity to ordinary gaffes, as shown this week when the Guardian produced a leaked recording from three years ago of her saying British workers need to show “more graft” and stop blaming their economic problems on Europe and immigrants. She brazened out the aftermath to no ill effect. After a campaign of policy flip-flops, it does no harm to appear fearlessly plain-spoken.

Unionists have been wary of Truss’s opponent, Rishi Sunak, who is said to judge the union in pounds and pence. But they are equally wary of Truss, for more complicated reasons. She is seen as beholden to the European Research Group (ERG) of Brexiteer MPs. The UUP considers this a straightforward threat to Northern Ireland, as it believes the ERG played games with the DUP and the union that led directly to the protocol.

Most of the DUP believes this too, of course, although they cannot admit it. Many in the party feel they have no choice but to stick with the ERG and hope it comes through with a protocol resolution. But they are aware that Truss was a remainer (and Sunak a committed leaver) during the 2016 EU referendum. Her political principles are not deep enough to be predictable.

The Bill to disapply the protocol was devised by Truss in co-operation with the ERG. It is framed as meeting unionist concerns and largely justified as addressing the DUP’s withdrawal from Stormont. In return, however, Truss expected a rapid restoration of the executive and the assembly as the Bill passed through its Commons stages in June and July. She kept her side of the bargain but the DUP is still too frightened and divided to make a reciprocal move.


Although the Tory leadership campaign has distracted attention from the DUP’s snub, the contest will be over on September 5th, the same day Stormont should be back from its summer recess. If the DUP does not start inching towards office it will quickly embarrass the new prime minister, erode support for the Bill at Westminster and undermine the UK’s negotiating strategy with Europe. If that prime minister is Truss, a showdown with the DUP beckons while the treacherous ERG eggs her on.

Sunak has also pledged to continue with the Bill. The DUP has less faith in him to do so and to take a hard line with the EU in general. But Sunak might be less personally aggravated by DUP foot-dragging – the Bill strategy is not his project and he is a less confrontational figure. In any case, the DUP’s real need is not for the Bill to become law, as the party claims. It is for a red and green channel-type deal with the EU that can be sold to unionist voters as removing the sea border within the UK. A deal has to be secured by the end of October, when Stormont’s caretaker period runs out and devolution collapses. If any prime minister is capable of achieving this it is far likelier to be the emollient and pragmatic Sunak, as the UUP has pointed out.

Beyond the protocol, Truss’s muscular approach to the union is dividing opinion within unionism, in addition to earning nationalist scorn.

She was ridiculed this week over a headline claiming she had said “Sinn Féin is trying to drive a wedge between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.”

In reality, she said she will stop Sinn Féin doing so by “delivering for the whole country”.

At hustings on Tuesday, held in Scotland, Truss repeated her flat refusal to countenance another Scottish independence referendum. By contrast, Sunak stressed the union operates by consent.

Received wisdom within Scottish unionism is that Truss’s tone is definitely a mistake, even if her thinking is correct. But it is hard for any unionist not to cheer her unapologetic defence of the union and defiance of the SNP.

There will be consequences for Scotland and Northern Ireland if this appears, however briefly, to enjoy success.

It would be almost impossible to break up the UK without UK government co-operation. That does not mean refusing a referendum or a Northern Ireland Border poll – the latter a treaty requirement. It could mean simply not engaging with the sort of debate and contingency planning that preceded the last Scottish referendum in 2014. Without it, nationalists are largely left talking to themselves.

Unionists in Northern Ireland are being urged to join conversations on a united Ireland. Their instinct is to stay away and that will be bolstered should Truss send a similar signal – for as long as she lasts, at least. If the next prime minister loses the next general election, they will be among the shortest-serving in British history.