British politics over the last 13 years has been a rollercoaster of change to accepted wisdom and settled opinion. A coalition government, five successive Conservative prime ministers, Brexit, the collapse of market confidence forcing a change in prime minister and chancellor, the dominance of the SNP in Scotland, Labour adjusting from being an election-winning juggernaut in the Blair years to the political impotence of the Milliband/Corbyn period and now re-emerging as a national force under Keir Starmer, and the near total eclipse of the Liberal Democrats.
This week one of the oldest and most enduring issues of British politics, the political settlement in Northern Ireland – never an issue that remains quiet for very long, is the latest in a series of career-defining issues to demand the attention of the occupant of No 10. This time round the province’s future is firmly set in the context of Britain’s departure from the European Union and Rishi Sunak is the latest prime minister who has to stake his political future on finding a settlement.
Northern Ireland voted overwhelmingly in the referendum to remain in the European Union and so, like Scotland, was taken out of membership against the wish of the majority of its citizens. The deal Boris Johnson negotiated and which Parliament approved drew a border between Northern Ireland and mainland Britain for the first time since the island of Ireland was partitioned. It was a significant moment in the history of these islands. The more so because it was the Conservative and Unionist government which imposed the border – something previously unimaginable and a significant indicator of just how far and quickly the politics of Brexit has changed the fundamental politics of the Conservative Party. Northern Ireland’s local politics has been fundamentally shifting too, with Sinn Fein now topping the poll for the Assembly. Polling in the Irish Republic consistently indicates that the party is on course to be the largest in the Dail. Soon it could be the dominant political party on both sides of the border. If this happens it will most likely have further consequences for the politics of Ireland.
Rishi Sunak inherited an unstable and unsustainable settlement for Northern Ireland and he has set himself the honourable, necessary and difficult task of finding a viable settlement. This week he will unveil his plan and bring to bear all the political capital he has to push it through Parliament and try to restore a functioning Northern Ireland Executive. The stakes for him and his government could not be higher. Rumblings of discontent in the party have been rolling around since his plans first began to circulate over a week ago. Some of the discontent has less to do with what the Prime Minister is proposing specifically as to do with his premiership generally.
He knows he can pass whatever he is proposing in this area through the Commons because Starmer has already promised Labour support – even though he, like the rest of us, has not seen in detail what the Prime Minister is proposing. This, though, would be a pyrrhic if necessary political victory for the PM. For Sunak needs to win this vote well and with Conservative votes to show that he commands his Parliamentary Party and to generate some much needed political momentum for his government. Britain does not need another fatally damaged prime minister. Northern Ireland needs the better settlement the Prime Minister is working hard to deliver and the Prime Minister needs the political success such a settlement would bring. Failure would be bad for Northern Ireland, the Prime Minister and the whole country.