Anglo-Irish relations, since a fallout over Brexit, are now orienting towards a short-term solution under the governments of British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Both men, of Indian ethnic stock, by engaging in discussions over a new settlement in the northern protocol, are a caricature of our times.
Two leaders of Indian heritage now find themselves at the helm of the British and Irish states, and, having inherited several political quagmires, are keen to seek short-term solutions to their problems. Hence, British re-negotiations of the protocol are likely to be pursued in a manner which concedes to European diktat.
Sunak faces various internal problems as a consequence of the increasing factionalism of the Tory party over leadership disputes and Brexit. Compounded with the societal instability associated with the death of the long-reigning Queen Elizabeth II and the ascension of a new King, Britain appears to be nearing some kind of political legitimacy crisis.
While Sunak may manage to survive these issues, a potential future Scottish Independence referendum seeks to exploit them for political opportunism. Given the threat that the SNP’s policies pose to the integrity of the Union, the United Kingdom’s future behaviour will likely involve a short-term can-kicking exercise of contemporary issues into the future for the sake of maintaining the status quo.
Inheriting a period of troubling economic and social unrest, both governments may be looked at comparatively in the issues they face and the very different possibilities affordable to these governments. Varadkar, too, has inherited multiple crises of his own party’s making, such as the housing crisis and the popular reaction against the state’s lax asylum seeker programme.
These domestic issues then serve to indicate the internal focus that both states will likely pursue in the near future. This, when understood through the context of the Six Counties, is unlikely to produce a result amenable to the Unionist community.
The Taoiseach, speaking to his British counterpart in their first bilateral phone call, discussed matters relating to Irish-British diplomacy and international cooperation, ranging from the Russo-Ukrainian War to the Irish protocol. Both statesmen are seemingly committed to avoiding a hard border though debates will likely continue as the extent to which the British state is willing to concede determined.
Though the North currently remains in the EU customs union, the European Court of Justice is also permitted to make legally binding rulings pertinent to this status. Whatever legislative compromise is met will be a mutually beneficial short-term solution for the British and Irish governments, to the chagrin of the Unionist parties, as domestic issues pertaining to government cohesion come to take precedent in statecraft decisio- making.
Sunak will concede on a number of issues, as he has previously hinted while pushing for exemptions to the customs union in efforts to produce a milquetoast revision of the Protocol. However such a result is still unlikely to appease the Unionist community, whose hardline stance on the issue of the Protocol is demonstrated by the DUP’s abstentionism from Stormont.
A priority for both British and Irish governments is to maintain the status quo – and any arrangement which may bring the DUP back into Stormont’s power-sharing system is a positive.
However, far from their influential position in Theresa May’s premiership, the DUP is now last place in Britain’s political pecking order. Hence the arrangement to which the British government comes to, will be one created with an intent to impose it onto the Unionists and forcibly change their minds.