An ‘opportunity’ to reset relationship, Taoiseach says as Boris Johnson resigns

Hope also expressed by Simon Coveney that there will be a rethink on plans to unilaterally disapply key parts of the Northern Ireland protocol

Taoiseach Micheál Martin has said the departure of Boris Johnson from Downing Street will present an opportunity to reset and improve British-Irish relations.

Mr Martin acknowledged that Mr Johnson had “been through a difficult couple of months” and said he wished “him and his family all the best for the future”.

He said it was fair to say that the British-Irish relationship had come “under strain” but that “opportunities now arise to reset that relationship”.

Mr Martin said a change in prime minister was an opportunity to improve the relationship but that was “on the basis of adhering to established agreements that have been entered into freely ... particularly in relation to the [Northern Ireland] protocol”.

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He said he wanted to get back to “the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement, which really was about the two governments working hand in hand”.

On the emerging contest within the Conservative Party, Mr Martin said that within the party “there are elements which never had the same commitment to the DNA of the Good Friday Agreement as the broader parliamentary majority in Westminster would have”.

“There are many Conservatives, on the other hand, who were dismayed by the unilateralism, particularly at the decision to bring in legislation to unilaterally override the agreement that the Westminster parliament has ratified,” Mr Martin added.

The Taoiseach said Mr Johnson had led the British government “during an especially challenging period, including dealing with the impact of Covid-19 and the response to the war on Ukraine”.

“From a personal perspective I am conscious that he has been through a difficult few weeks and I extend my best wishes to him and his family for the future, following the announcement of his resignation.”

Mr Martin said the relationships between the two countries are “long, deep and enduring”.

“I think there’s an opportunity for people to go back to the fundamentals of how politics is done, how international relations are conducted, how agreements entered into are adhered to and that we use the mechanisms in those agreements to resolve any issues.”

He warned that the existing British government proposals would be damaging to industry and business in Northern Ireland — which he said was the view of the business community in the North, not something coming from politicians.

Asked if he had anything good to say about Mr Johnson, the Taoiseach said he had not said anything bad about him on a personal level. “On a personal level we got on well. But we didn’t agree on fundamental issues,” he said.

“On a personal front, he was good company,” Mr Martin added. “That’s generally the experience of most people.”

Mr Martin declined to be drawn on potential candidates for the Conservative leadership, but said he hoped a new prime minister would return to “how business is normally conducted in respect of international agreements”.

Speaking on a visit to the United Nations in New York, Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney also expressed the hope that there will be a rethink on the part of the next administration in London on plans to unilaterally disapply key parts of the Northern Ireland protocol.

‘New beginning’

“We hope this can be an opportunity for a new beginning in terms of an appetite for honest and sincere dialogue in terms of the partnership that is needed to resolve questions that are outstanding.”

He maintained that if the British side pressed ahead under a new government with the plans proposed by Boris Johnson’s cabinet for unilateral action on the Northern Ireland protocol it would “really damage” Britain’s relations with the European Union.

“I think for any new prime minister coming in to deliberately undermine and damage trust with the EU as one of first policy and legislative initiatives would be an extraordinary decision when actually the EU wants to compromise and wants to improve relations between UK and EU,” Mr Coveney said.

He said he hoped the approach of the next British government would change “in that they have not been willing to be part of serious negotiations with the EU since February 11th and have pressed ahead instead with unilateral legislation which breaches international law over the last few weeks”.

Mr Coveney said he hoped there would be a return to partnership and a negotiated approach where both sides could work together to find a middle-ground position and provide the stability that the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland wanted.

“I said ever since this [British] legislation was published that it would cause an awful lot more problems than it solved. That is the view of every European capital as well the European institutions and the administration in Washington.

“All Britain’s friends are telling them this is not the way to solve problems, to break international law unilaterally, to essentially set aside international agreements that are extremely important to your neighbours. That is not the way to solve this problem.”

Mr Coveney is scheduled to travel to London on Monday for engagements that were scheduled prior to Mr Johnson’s resignation.

‘Witty and engaging’

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said Mr Johnson had been “witty and engaging” but unfortunately the Irish and British people would for years to come have to live with the negative consequences of Mr Johnson’s advocacy for Brexit.

Mr Varadkar said he disagreed with Mr Johnson on many things “but I always found him a personable, witty, engaging and intelligent man”.

The Tánaiste said Mr Johnson had been an “excellent and innovative” mayor of London. But he added: “Regrettably he chose the wrong side in the great debate on Europe before he became prime minister and we and the British people will be living with the negative consequences for many years to come.”

“It could have been different. I hope that he will put his boundless energy and enthusiasm to good use in the future”.

Mary Lou McDonald, meanwhile, said Mr Johnson’s interactions with Ireland had been wholly negative and “he will not be missed”. She said under his leadership there had been an attack on the Belfast Agreement and “threat after threat to break international law”.

“Mr Johnson’s government brought austerity to people in the North of Ireland and of course, he championed and brought Brexit to all of us, so, I think it needs to be stated very clearly that whoever succeeds Boris Johnson now as prime minister needs to change direction and change tack and we need a British government that respects international law,” she said.

“We need the Assembly and the Executive established without further delay in the North,” she added.

The party’s vice-president, Michelle O’Neill, tweeted: “It has been an utter absurdity that the people here have been subjected to Boris Johnson for any length of time.

“Anyone who tries to sabotage our peace agreements, a quarter century of progress and our shared future is truly no friend of ours.”

Jeffrey Donaldson, leader of the DUP, indicated that the change of prime minister would not change his party’s position on the protocol.

“It is no secret that we believed that Boris Johnson had a duty to get rid of the Irish Sea border, having disastrously gone against our advice and signed a withdrawal agreement containing the protocol,” he said.

“Fully-functioning devolved government in Stormont and the protocol cannot coexist.”

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said Boris Johnson had “debased” the office he held.

“He has fundamentally and indelibly damaged public confidence in politics and public life and his death grip on power has prolonged a period of government that will be characterised by lawbreaking, scandal and sleaze,” he said.

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy is Political Editor of The Irish Times

Martin Wall

Martin Wall

Martin Wall is Washington Correspondent of The Irish Times. He was previously industry correspondent

Jade Wilson

Jade Wilson

Jade Wilson is a reporter for The Irish Times

Tim O'Brien

Tim O'Brien

Tim O'Brien is an Irish Times journalist