The Guardian view on the Tories and Northern Ireland: reset not run-in | Editorial

There are three reasons why Northern Ireland has not rated many mentions in the Conservative leadership contest so far. The first is that the standoff with the European Union over the Brexit Northern Ireland protocol is currently dwarfed by the severity of the energy price crisis. The second is that most Tory party members, who are overwhelmingly English, are not interested in Northern Ireland. The third is that Rishi Sunak does not want to let Liz Truss turn the issue into a test of Brexit zealotry that she would win.

Next week, however, the evasions will end as the leadership hustings move to Belfast. In less than a month, the new prime minister will also need to engage with Northern Ireland issues, whether they want to or not. That’s because the stalemate is damaging the Northern Ireland economy. It is also holding the power-sharing governance of Northern Ireland hostage. It is souring relations between the UK and the Irish Republic; helping, perhaps, to boost Sinn Féin in the south. And it is standing in the way of a practical post-Brexit relationship with the EU and the Biden administration.

The crucial question for the next prime minister is the extent to which they think this matters. There is a rational case for saying that it matters a lot and that the time is ripe for a reset of Northern Ireland policy after the opportunism and sabre-rattling of the Boris Johnson era. Faced with an economic crisis that will dominate every waking ministerial moment this winter, a strategic decision to calm the Northern Ireland problem would make a lot of political sense.

The aims of a reset would include several things: good faith negotiations over implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol; readiness to find words, timings and light-touch regulations that would allow the flow of goods across the Irish Sea to resume; getting the power-sharing assembly and executive back up and running with Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill as first minister and the DUP’s Jeffrey Donaldson as deputy; restoring mutual confidence between London and Dublin over the consensual working of the Good Friday agreement; and avoiding a trade war with the EU.

So far, so rational, and also so achievable. There is, though, another approach, advocated by Lord Frost. This says that the dispute is fundamentally about the UK’s inalienable post-Brexit sovereignty. So there can be no compromise which allows the EU to play even a vestigial role in Irish Sea trade checks; no role for the European court of justice in settling disputes; and no jurisdiction for bodies like the European Medicines Agency in Northern Ireland. Going further, this sovereigntist approach wants to withdraw the UK from the European convention on human rights, despite its key role in the Good Friday agreement. Proponents may argue that, with the government suffering political damage from fierce economic headwinds, a Brexit dispute would also be a useful diversion in the run-up to a UK general election.

Next week in Belfast, some of the implications for Northern Ireland and the EU of the leadership choice will be spelled out. This autumn, the winner will make choices, including cabinet appointments and Downing Street lieutenants, that will signal more clearly which route will be followed. It is hard to be hopeful. But let no one pretend that this is a marginal aspect of the leadership election. The choice will be absolutely central to the post-Johnson era. It needs to be talked about and scrutinised, now and often.

The Guardian