Rishi Sunak has been declared the next Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, following an audience with King Charles on October 25th. In the wake of months of political unrest, and a 44-day stint in office from Liz Truss, 42-year-old Sunak triumphed in the Conservative party leadership contest after the withdrawal of his competitor, Penny Mordaunt.
Stating in a brief statement that the United Kingdom faces, “profound economic challenges,” the incumbent prime minister is confronted with the plummeting pound, a lack of discipline within the Tory party, and salvaging the reputation of his party following months of political scandal.
However, these are not the only pressing issues he is facing. In fact, overseas in Northern Ireland, tensions are higher than ever regarding the ever-contentious Northern Ireland Protocol, so much that the Northern Ireland Executive remains at a standstill.
This, thus, begs the question - where does the new prime minister stand on the protocol, and what are his intentions moving forward?
To answer such questions, one must begin with addressing what the protocol is, and why there are so many issues surrounding its existence. The Northern Ireland Protocol can be defined as a trading arrangement, negotiated during Brexit talks. It is intended to permit the transportation of goods across the Irish land border without the need for checks. It, in theory, prevents a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, and should protect the European Union’s single market for goods entering Northern Ireland.
This, however, is only in theory, with opinions on the protocol drastically differing across political parties. There are many from Unionist backgrounds in Northern Ireland that stand against the protocol, citing its existence as weakening Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom. Most significantly, this sentiment is present within Northern Ireland’s hard-line Democratic Unionist Party. In fact, the DUP’s leader, Jeffrey Donaldson, vowed “to perpetuate Northern Ireland’s political paralysis unless the UK government overhauls its Brexit deal with the EU.” Moreover, his party is insistent that even compromises to the protocol will not be enough to reinstate power sharing in Northern Ireland between themselves and Sinn Fein.
The stagnant political sphere in Northern Ireland is as such, left hanging in the balance of providing a suitable protocol for all citizens across this divided nation. The DUP’s counterparts, Sinn Fein, have accused the “DUP of ‘gross political negligence’ over its refusals to re-enter power-sharing at Stormont” as a result of the protocol; while Alliance leader Naomi Long has urged Sunak to take action to reform “Stormont's power-sharing structures to end ‘ransom politics.’”
So, what is the new prime minister’s solution?
Publicly critical of the protocol, Mr Sunak had previously stated it was preventing the re-establishment of power sharing at Stormont, stating it posed challenges to Northern Ireland’s stability. His preference - a negotiated settlement that would ensure Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom.
Furthermore, according to a White House readout, during his first phone call with US President Joe Biden, the two agreed on their shared commitment to protecting the Good Friday Agreement, pledging to “maintain momentum toward reaching a negotiated agreement with the European Union on the Northern Ireland Protocol.”
How he will do so is unclear at this time. Projected to take “a more pragmatic approach” to the protocol than his predecessors, the Irish Government has predicted Mr Sunak’s reluctance to engage in conflict with the European Union over this matter. They cite his focus as rather, on stabilising sterling, reducing borrowing costs from international markets, and repairing the UK’s finances.
Only this month have technical negotiations between the UK and the EU been reinstated. This does not, however, undermine the urgency of this situation.
Mr Sunak will have tough decisions to make – decisions not fulfilled by either Boris Johnson or Liz Truss. Only time will tell if he can satisfy the demands of all political facets of Northern Ireland – finding a solution not for the few, but for all.
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