Sunak victory boosts Dublin hopes of deal on Northern Ireland protocol

Idea grows that weak economic position of UK since Truss mini-budget will push London towards accord with Brussels

After the strained friendships and raised tempers with Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, the Irish Government is hopeful that better Anglo-Irish relations can be restored with the administration soon to be led by new prime minister Rishi Sunak.

There is optimism in Dublin that the election of Sunak as Conservative Party leader and his appointment as British prime minister will pave the way for a deal with the EU on the Northern Ireland protocol.

Several senior figures, including Ministers and high-level officials, said they believed Sunak would prioritise economic recovery and stabilisation of the public finances in the UK, and would be reluctant to exacerbate conflict with the EU over the Northern Ireland Protocol.

While sources acknowledge that the optimistic view is based on assumptions about Sunak rather than observed facts – he has said little if anything revealing about the protocol – they argue that the weakened economic position of the UK since the disastrous mini-budget of the Truss administration has an irrefutable logic which will push London towards a deal with Brussels.


Trade war prospect

The prospect of a trade war with the EU, which could be sparked by the British government’s unilateral junking of the protocol, would be disastrous for the UK and for Sunak’s hopes of stabilising the pound, bringing down the cost of UK government borrowing and restarting growth in the UK economy.

“He’s orthodox, he’s not going to be starting a trade war or breaking treaties,” said one Irish Government source who is cautiously optimistic about the Sunak premiership. “But always with the British, you’re afraid of the internal politics.”

“Weak on Irish history and the North, strong on basic sanity and honesty,” summarises one official in a text message. “We’ll take that.”

Another said: “There’s an expectation that he will be more pragmatic.” For pragmatic, read willing to do a deal.

Likely appointments

Sunak’s appointments in the coming days will be watched closely. Appointments to the foreign office and also who Sunak chooses to put in charge of the protocol negotiations will be especially relevant, as will any changes in the Northern Ireland Office, though there have been positive reports from Irish officials and politicians about Truss-appointed secretary of state Chris Heaton-Harris and his junior minister, Steve Baker.

Baker in particular has surprised Dublin, suspicious of his hard Brexiteer history, with an emollient and constructive tone. However, senior sources also say that despite the dramatic change in the mood music from the Truss administration, officials in contact with Dublin and Brussels had not indicated that any substantial change in the British position was on the way. A change in approach is more important to Dublin and Brussels than a change in personnel. “The personalities aren’t the determining factors,” says one high-ranking source. Dublin will also watch closely what Sunak says about the legislation to set aside the protocol which is currently before the House of Lords.

There are hopes in Dublin and Brussels that Sunak’s election signals a decline in the power of the hardline European Research Group (ERG) faction within the Tories; the ERG was said to be split on the question of the next leader and failed to agree to back anyone. If the group’s influence has waned, it will give Sunak a freer hand to agree a compromise with the EU over the protocol.

There is less optimism, though, that the elections in Northern Ireland, which are set to be called this Friday, can be avoided. If scrapping the protocol is less of a priority for Sunak, so, most likely, is getting the power-sharing administration back working. That could leave the DUP even more isolated. An expected call between the Taoiseach and Sunak after he becomes Britiush prime minister later this week will be the first concrete indication of what direction events are likely to take.