Liz Truss will become UK prime minister next week and will immediately face a more intimidating in-tray than any peacetime British leader in living memory. How she handles some of the most important issues facing her will have a direct impact on this country. Apart from the many hundreds of thousands of Irish people who live, work or do regular business in the United Kingdom and whose lives will be affected directly by Truss’s policies, the choices she makes on the future British relationship with the European Union and the approach she takes to the Northern Ireland protocol will matter hugely for Ireland and Irish people.
The signs, frankly, are not good. Several senior officials and politicians who spoke privately this week fear that the calamitous decline in the relationship between the Irish and British governments, which began after Brexit and accelerated under the disastrous premiership of Boris Johnson, is set to continue.
Around Government circles in Dublin, the perception of Truss is still largely framed by her poor relationship with her Irish counterpart as foreign secretary, Simon Coveney. The pair had an infamously fractious meeting in Turin in May at which Truss – according to the colourful accounts of the meeting which continue to circulate on the official and political rumour mill – upbraided Coveney for being insufficiently supportive of the UK’s demands about the protocol.
Dublin’s view of Truss has been reinforced by the backing she has received from the extreme Europhobic wing of the Conservative Party in the European Research Group
Coveney, somewhat exasperated by the British government’s desire to rewrite an agreement it had signed and passed through parliament two years earlier, reportedly gave as good as he got, according to several accounts I have heard. (The encounter took place in a curtained-off alcove rather than a separate room and so passing observers overheard much of it.)
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Truss’s references to Northern Ireland as “part of my country” – true but hardly the complete picture in regulatory terms according to UK law – and what some officials interpreted as threats to the Common Travel Area have been relayed throughout official circles in Dublin with a mixture of disbelief and anger. Phone calls between the two have followed a similar, if perhaps less combustible, pattern.
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The accounts are admittedly partial ones, but they are not contradicted in their essence by British sources. All this is what is behind the view expressed by one source in mid-summer, characterising the Irish Government’s private attitude to the Tory party contest: anyone but Truss.
Dublin’s view of Truss has been reinforced by the backing she has received from the extreme Europhobic wing of the Conservative Party in the European Research Group (ERG). Figures such as Jacob Rees-Mogg, Lord David Frost, Suella Braverman, maybe Iain Duncan Smith and even – God help us – John Redwood are all tipped for roles in the new administration. “What cheques has she written to the ERG that she now has to cash?” asks one Irish official.
The view of Truss in Brussels is no more benign. Her declaration last week that the “jury’s out” on whether Emmanuel Macron is a “friend or foe” was seen by many in Brussels as a sign that Truss will be Johnson without the bluster and chaotic personability. Another observer points to a statement made by Truss during the campaign – “There’s only one thing that EU understands and that is strength. I’m strong enough to make it happen” – as evidence that a confrontational approach from London will continue.
Moreover, EU officials need no reminding that she is the minister who introduced the legislation to bust up the protocol in the face of warnings at home and abroad, public and private, that it would poison relations and put the EU and UK on a trajectory towards a trade war.
Truss’s cabinet and staff appointments will be closely watched for what they say about the influence the ERG will have over her EU policy
So there will be no benefit of the doubt for Truss in Brussels, or Paris, or Berlin. If she continues with the Bill and unilaterally sets aside the protocol, the EU will respond with the legal and trade weapons at its disposal. There is also a belief in some quarters that Truss will seek conflict with the EU to distract from her inevitable difficulties at home.
Amid all this foreboding, however, there are some signs of optimism. Some sources on both sides suggest that the daunting agenda faced by Truss may lead her to conclude that stoking up conflict with the EU – with all the economic dangers attendant to that course of action – may simply not be worth it. How much has any Tory leader really cared about what Ulster unionists think?
If that is true, it doesn’t mean Truss will fold up the protocol legislation. But it may mean that she is up for a deal, which is what Dublin and Brussels also say they want. There is also a view in London that Micheál Martin may be a more accommodating interlocutor than Leo Varadkar. Officials on both sides say that plans are being made for an early phone call between Martin and Truss, and – perhaps – a meeting before long.
Foreign office junior minister Conor Burns visited Dublin earlier this week – reportedly with Truss’s imprimatur – and made some soothing noises, though how seriously this was taken is another matter. The Taoiseach and Coveney are attending the British Irish Association meeting in Oxford today, where strained relations are often improved over the port and stilton.
Truss’s cabinet and staff appointments will be closely watched for what they say about the influence the ERG will have over her EU policy. As will things like how much priority she gives to a call with Ursula von der Leyen. The British know these things matter, and they also know that it is up to them to move first if there is to be a mending of relations and a productive way forward found. “Everyone’s waiting to see,” says one senior Irish official. They’ll know soon enough.