Change of PM could herald ‘new start’ in Brussels-London relationship

The EU is hopeful a change in UK prime minister will herald a “new start” in relations between Brussels and London, a senior Irish minister has said.

Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney said he does not have a preference between Liz Truss or Rishi Sunak in the Conservative leadership contest.

However, he expressed hope that whoever succeeds Boris Johnson steps away from the contentious move to override Brexit’s Northern Ireland Protocol by way of domestic legislation at Westminster.

Mr Coveney was speaking in Belfast ahead of meetings with local politicians to discuss the ongoing power-sharing impasse at Stormont triggered by the DUP’s refusal to reenter a devolved executive in protest at the Irish Sea trading arrangements.

“The leadership contest within the Conservative Party is a matter for the Conservative Party,” he said.

“We’ll work with whoever the new leader is, whoever the new prime minister is.

“Of course, we hope that the new prime minister won’t pursue a strategy of breaking international law and breaking their word to Ireland and the EU.”

Mr Coveney said the EU is waiting to see what the approach of the next prime minister will be before deciding its next move in response to the controversial Northern Ireland Protocol Bill.

“I think there is a sense in Brussels now that they want to wait for a new prime minister to be in office in number 10 Downing Street,” he said.

“And I think there is a certainly a willingness to try to work towards a new start, if you like, in relations between the British government and the EU.

“And certainly that’s the case from Dublin.

“I mean, we would like to see the change in Conservative Party leadership and the change in the prime minister’s office as an opportunity to try and resolve some of these outstanding issues in a different way.

“Because, you know, it’s no secret that the relationship between the British and Irish governments has not been good in recent years and that’s because the British Government has decided to move away from partnership and co-operation, which in many ways has been the foundation of the success of the peace agreements, which will be 25 years old this year.

“And it’s a real worry for us, if I’m honest, that the British Government over the last number of years has moved away from that partnership approach to try to make politics in Northern Ireland easier for people in terms of finding solutions and compromises on difficult issues.”

Simon Coveney had meetings scheduled with Sinn Fein, the Alliance Party, the UUP and SDLP on Thursday.

He said it had not been possible to arrange a meeting with DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson as he was in London.

“We looked for a meeting with the DUP, just like we looked for a meeting with the DUP the last time I was here,” he said.

Mr Coveney said people should not “read too much into” the fact a meeting with the DUP had not been possible.

The DUP said “diary issues” prevented a meeting on Thursday but that they hope one can be arranged soon.

Conservative leadership bid
Sinn Fein’s Conor Murphy (left) and Declan Kearney speak to the media at Grand Central Hotel in Belfast (David Young/PA)

Sinn Fein’s Conor Murphy described his meeting with Mr Coveney as “very useful”.

He said they share the view the power-sharing institutions should be reinstated immediately.

He also confirmed that Sinn Fein will be supporting an SDLP motion to recall the Assembly next week in a bid to nominate a speaker.

While the Assembly will convene for a sitting on Tuesday, the move will not deliver a return to power-sharing if the DUP maintain its current blockade.

Speaking after his talk with Mr Coveney, Mr Murphy said: “We rightly share a growing concern across this island that the objective of some elements of the British government and certainly the DUP is to fatally undermine the Good Friday Agreement with this approach, and we’re very determined to resist that and to ensure that the institutions that people here voted for are up and running in the interests of the people who elected us.”

The Sinn Fein minister said his party has no preference on who is the next prime minister.

“It is the British government policy in Ireland that’s the problem, not the individuals in charge,” he added.

Alliance leader Naomi Long accused the DUP of “using and abusing” their veto to protect their own party interests.

Mrs Long said her party has also backed the SDLP recall motion.

“We believe that the solution to the current impasse at Stormont lies in the hands of DUP,” she said.

“We shouldn’t need government involvement, either from Westminster or from Ireland, to be able to restore the institutions.

“People have a mandate. They went to the electorate to stand for the Assembly and to do a job. I think it’s now over to all parties to commit to doing that job.”

UUP leader Doug Beattie said whoever takes over as Tory leader needs to prioritise Northern Ireland.

“Is Northern Ireland going to remain on the windowsill of the United Kingdom under them as a prime minister or are they going to take time to understand the problem here and start investing a bit of time here?” he asked.

“Because certainly Boris Johnson as a prime minister invested no time whatsoever in Northern Ireland.”