Implications of potential Johnson successor are being discussed on both sides of the Border

Change at Downing Street could have profound effect on London’s approach to Northern Ireland protocol, officials say

Northern Ireland MPs and senior officials in Dublin say that a change of leader at Downing Street could have a profound effect on London’s approach to the post-Brexit Northern Ireland protocol and Anglo-Irish relations in general.

Speaking at a press conference, Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe declined to be drawn on events in London but conceded that Dublin’s view that a change in the British position is desirable “is not going to change in any way”.

Privately, however, Ministers and senior officials are agog at the implosion of the Johnson administration and are following events closely. The implications for Ireland and the identity of Mr Johnson’s potential successor are discussed constantly.

Dublin would like to see the hardline European Research Group (ERG) wing of the Conservative Party ousted and a more conciliatory, one-nation successor in place.

According to several senior sources, all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity, the worst outcome would be for foreign secretary Liz Truss to ascend to 10 Downing Street. Lively accounts of a hot-tempered encounter between Ms Truss and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney in Turin earlier this year still circulate around Government.

Other potential candidates garner a mixed response in Dublin. Either ex-chancellor Rishi Sunak or the first cabinet minister to resign, Sajid Javid, would be welcomed, said a senior figure, while anyone from the Dominic Raab-Priti Patel side is seen as being as bad as Mr Johnson.

Ben Wallace would be “difficult”, said a senior official; Penny Mordaunt is seen as a “moderate” with whom Dublin could do business; and Jeremy Hunt was not considered helpful by Irish sources when he was foreign secretary but is seen as someone who would not have let Anglo-Irish relations deteriorate so badly.

“But it’s hard to tell. In some respects there’s no good outcome,” says another source.

The view in Belfast differs between the DUP and others. Sammy Wilson, East Antrim MP and the DUP’s Brexit spokesman, admits a Sunak premiership would “greatly weaken” the ERG — a hard-right rump within the Conservatives which has helped Mr Johnson cling to power.

“Sunak would show much less commitment to the [Northern Ireland] Protocol Bill than the current prime minister,” he said.

Ms Truss, Wilson says, “is quite close to the ERG and their view”. But he does not believe she has enough support in the wider party to succeed Mr Johnson. “The ERG will still be a significant influence. Will it be as big an influence? Probably not, if the likes of [former foreign secretary] Jeremy Hunt took over, and Javid would probably be the same as Sunak.”

Mr Wilson denied that the DUP would be nervous over any changing of the guard in London, but accepted that the fate of the protocol legislation rests largely on who takes over and would likely be a key issue in any leadership bid. Once a new leader is installed, the EU could also alter their stance on negotiating terms, given Mr Johnson is “someone they don’t like very much anyway,” he added.

Stephen Farry, Alliance MP for North Down, agrees that if Ms Truss took over “it will be pretty much more of the same”.

“Her fingerprints are very much all over the Northern Ireland protocol legislation, and she will likely be determined to take that through,” he said. “The optimistic side of my brain is saying if a different leader is decided, there may be a rethink around all of this.”

Colum Eastwood, Foyle MP and SDLP leader, predicted that the Conservative Party could opt for “a safe pair of hands”.

“If that does happen, we will get an opportunity for a more grown-up conversation with Europe, as long as a new leader doesn’t make any mad promises to the ERG,” he said.

“In the meantime, Brussels and European capitals will continue thinking ‘why would we negotiate with Boris?’ He’s done and you can’t negotiate with him anyway, because he breaks his word, he lies and it is not credible to negotiate with someone who walks away from the table. There are norms in international diplomacy and he has tried to rip them all up.”

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy is Political Editor of The Irish Times

Brian Hutton

Brian Hutton is a freelance journalist and Irish Times contributor