What happens for Northern Ireland if Liz Truss – barring another political sensation – becomes Conservative leader and then Prime Minister?
During the never-ending campaign, Truss offered even more hostages to fate when Boris Johnson let loose at a DUP conference. Utopia awaits.
Truss encounter with reality will change things. And she’s immediately faced with tough decisions about Northern Ireland. First, who to blame? The current foreign minister, Shailesh Vara, is the first incumbent who hasn’t upset all parties, if only because he didn’t have time. We could look back on his two months as a golden age. But as a supporter of Rishi Sunak, he may be in the evil corner.
Truss might get revenge on Vara by forcing him to stay. Poor guy. If not, finding a replacement is limited to those who might want the job. So just Conor Burns. A gay Catholic trade unionist from West Belfast as Foreign Secretary for Northern Ireland. All covered in just one appointment.
Second, how do you get the DUP back into the political institutions? Conor Burns said last week there was “no reason why the DUP shouldn’t be there”. Forgetting the NI protocol is a new way forward, but you can’t really see Sir Jeffrey Donaldson taking the path of amnesia. So what will happen?
Truss is eventually able to put the horse in front of the wagon and trigger Article 16, suspending parts of the protocol. This will cloak the likely illegal – their bill, which flouts protocol – in a legal cloak.
The UK government has every right to trigger Article 16 because of “serious societal difficulties”. You can place the collapse of decentralized power-sharing and its aftermath in this category.
The EU is also entitled – and will – respond with its own measures, but these must be specific and proportionate. The UK’s broader Brexit deal with the EU is not under threat – yet.
Had Truss gone down the Article 16 route at all, we might have avoided the collapse of the Executive and Assembly. Instead, her recovery may be based on her bill passing the House of Lords. It sailed through the Commons with a seamlessness that UK to NI traders could only envy, but the Lords could be trickier.
The new Prime Minister could reassure the DUP that she will use the Parliament Act to overrule the Lords if they resist. The relevant date in such a scenario is June 27 next year, one year after the second reading of the bill in the House of Commons. The lords can hesitate no longer when the law is applied.
If the DUP can be appeased, a phased return to work is possible. Toes first in the meeting waters. That would prevent the Truss administration from having to make another big decision on whether and when to cut MLA salaries.
What about the DUP in the executive branch? Under the rules, the Secretary of State is to call an assembly election at the end of October, when time for the 24-week zombie government/caretaker executive is up.
Shailesh Vara told us at the British Irish Association conference in Oxford on Friday night that he would do just that. It’s fair to say that the congregation didn’t exactly stand up in adoration of the idea. You just stopped counting the last one in Magherafelt.
More likely, the Secretary of State – whoever the incumbent might be – will need 24 hours to pass emergency legislation to buy another 24 weeks. At least.
Despite all these problems, don’t assume that Northern Ireland will be a key priority.
Inflation, the energy crisis, rising interest rates and hasty promises of tax cuts will be the big items in Truss’ mailbox. Distant court battles with the EU seem almost a pleasant distraction by comparison.
What if it doesn’t work? Many Conservatives could be longing for the honorable member to return for Uxbridge and South Ruislip. After all, he worked so well for Northern Ireland the first time around.
Jon Tonge is Professor of Politics at the University of Liverpool
https://www.independent.ie/news/the-hard-work-is-set-to-begin-for-the-new-tory-leader-but-ni-wont-be-high-on-the-agenda-41961214.html The hard work for the new Tory leader will begin… but NI will not be high on the agenda