DUBLIN – Prime Minister Rishi Sunak made his first diplomatic foray into Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit trade dispute Thursday as he pledged to seek a compromise agreement with the EU that would be strong enough to revive the U.K. region’s cross-community government.
“What I want to do is find a negotiated solution preferably. I’m pleased with the progress that we’re making in these early days in this job. My focus is to try and find a resolution [and] get the institutions back up and running,” Sunak said after holding his first talks with Irish Prime Minister Micheál Martin at a hotel in Blackpool, northwest England.
Sunak became the first Conservative prime minister to attend the British-Irish Council, one of the few cooperative institutions created by Northern Ireland’s 1998 peace accord that is still functioning.
Every six months, the council brings together regional government leaders from across Britain and Ireland. While Labour Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown took personal charge of council sessions, the Conservatives had always opted to send junior Cabinet ministers since gaining power in 2010.
Underscoring the remaining diplomatic gulf between London and Brussels, Sunak described the trade protocol — agreed by his predecessor Boris Johnson as part of the U.K.’s 2019 Withdrawal Agreement with the EU — as “threatening Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom.”
His words reflect the reality that the protocol places EU-required checks on British goods as they enter Northern Ireland, which unlike the rest of the U.K. still must enforce EU single market rules on goods. That’s the regulatory price for Northern Ireland to keep trading freely across its land border with the EU, a condition required by the north’s Irish nationalists and the Irish government.
The north’s main British unionist party, the Democratic Unionists, has refused to revive the power-sharing government in Belfast unless Sunak’s government overrides its treaty with the EU and abolishes what it calls an “Irish Sea border.” As a direct consequence, the Northern Ireland Assembly and its cross-community administration collapsed on October 28, wrecking a core institution of the Good Friday Agreement.
While the U.K. government’s Northern Ireland secretary, Liz Truss appointee Chris Heaton-Harris, had repeatedly insisted he would call an immediate new assembly election if Stormont collapsed, he relented once the reality of power-sharing’s failure sank in.
“There is a window of opportunity with the election being postponed for an agreement to be arrived at,” Martin said after meeting Sunak.
“The British government along with the European Union is now very determined to engage and to work through this and to see if we can get an agreement,” Martin said. “I’m very clear after the meeting that the U.K. government and the prime minister is very, very keen on getting a negotiated settlement.”
Behind the scenes, U.K. and Irish officials agreed that Sunak’s attendance was intended to signal an increased British government focus on safeguarding the gains of the Good Friday Agreement following six years of Brexit-driven tensions that have pushed London and Dublin apart.
In Blackpool, Sunak also met face to face with Scotland First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and by video link with Wales First Minister Mark Drakeford.
While leaders of the Northern Ireland Executive normally attend council meetings, none were present Thursday because that executive no longer exists. In their place came Jayne Brady, director of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, who discussed the need for Westminster to provide more decision-making powers to department heads left without a minister.
Sunak’s government does appear more focused on achieving an agreement with Brussels that minimizes paperwork and physical checks at Northern Irish ports via live data-sharing with EU authorities, a condition of the protocol agreement that the U.K. was supposed to roll out last year and is belatedly being field-tested this month with EU authorities.
Such data-sharing would help port officials to pinpoint goods most at risk of crossing the Irish border into the EU, allowing most shipments from Britain to avoid sanitary and customs controls.
The British-Irish Council meeting concludes Friday with an expected afternoon press conference.