It’s coming up to Rishi Sunak’s three-week anniversary as Britain’s prime minister and it’s interesting that he’s doing all the right things to be as boring as possible. Reassuringly so. He’s doing dull, essential things like tending to budgets and doing diplomacy. Consider his November 10 outing down to the English town of Blackpool on the Irish Sea coast. Becoming the first British prime minister in 15 years to attend the opening of the British Irish Council summit, Mr Sunak made boring – and reassuring – noises after meeting his Irish counterpart Micheál Martin. He said that he was “confident” a “practical resolution” can be found over the Northern Ireland protocol and that there is a need to find a “negotiated solution” to resolve the dispute with the European Union over the protocol. He also said he was “deeply committed to the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement” and that “We need to protect Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom and that will require everyone to enter into these talks with a spirit of goodwill and pragmatism.”
Mr Martin responded encouragingly and in a spirit of goodwill and pragmatism. “We want to see meat on the bone,” he told RTÉ television, noting with significant emphasis: “The mood music is improving. We now need to translate that into a resolution.” Leo Varadkar, who will take over from Mr Martin as taoiseach on December 17, said Mr Sunak’s presence at the summit was “a very significant gesture and, hopefully, it’s a sign of a better relationship to come”.
Quite so. But this is a long, wearying road and there is no guarantee of success. Despite all the problems, the point to note is Mr Sunak’s return to the negotiating table as well as to the boring business of diplomacy and governance. In doing so, he has restarted long-stalled talks even as Northern Ireland’s political institutions remain in limbo and the Democratic Unionist party (DUP), the biggest pro-UK political force in the territory, boycotts the power-sharing executive and assembly at Stormont.
Next year is the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement that ended Northern Ireland’s three-decade conflict and it would be a shame if the British were unable to stay focussed on a landmark deal that brought so much hope and genuinely helped so many.
Mr Sunak’s return to the boring demands of governance – as well as the negotiating table with respect to Northern Ireland – is a remarkable sign of how bad politics has been in Britain for more than a decade.
(As a sidenote, Mr Sunak also used this past Thursday to hold bilateral meetings with Nicola Sturgeon, first minister of Scotland, and Mark Drakeford, her Welsh counterpart. His predecessor, Liz Truss, was dismissive of both and wouldn’t speak to them and as prime minister, Boris Johnson had a notoriously poor relationship with both. And neither had a particularly good opinion of Mr Johnson!)