DUBLIN — When the Irish look eastward at the Conservative leadership battle, they struggle to see grounds for hope.
After Boris Johnson, Ireland wants a new partner in London committed to repairing bilateral relations and restoring a joint Anglo-Irish approach to managing Northern Ireland, the formula that delivered the Good Friday Agreement nearly a quarter-century ago.
After watching the weekend’s two TV debates, government politicians and senior civil servants told POLITICO they see Chancellor Rishi Sunak as the likely final-round loser to either Trade Minister Penny Mordaunt or Foreign Secretary Liz Truss – and are consoled only by their own singularly damning assessment of the current tenant of No. 10.
“Surely none of them could be worse than Boris Johnson,” said one Dublin official who recalls, in better times, how he worked closely with London counterparts on maintaining stability in Northern Ireland. “That’s got to be a positive. Perhaps the only positive.”
At the heart of Irish pessimism is a belief that, since 2016, successive Conservative governments have stopped seeking support from Dublin as they pursue their aims in Northern Ireland.
These days, Dublin believes, the only “Irish” faction whose views are weighed at Westminster are the Democratic Unionists, the Northern Ireland party that both opposed the Good Friday compromise and backed Brexit.
“We’ve been burned by six years of Conservative prime ministers. I have little faith that the next one’s going to be any better,” said Neale Richmond, European affairs spokesman for Fine Gael, the most pro-EU of three parties in Ireland’s coalition government.
Of immediate concern is whether Johnson’s successor will create space for renewed negotiations with Brussels in preference to passage of the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, controversial British legislation that would give U.K. ministers domestic power to ignore parts of the painstakingly-negotiated Brexit deal.
Virtually no politician in Dublin has a good word to say about Truss, given her close association with the bill. Ireland’s newspaper of record, the Irish Times, dismissed her as “an ineffectual foreign minister who campaigned against Brexit and then cheered it.”
They’re somewhat warmer toward Sunak, even as they note his own choice to back Brexit in 2016. He, like Mordaunt, abstained when the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill passed its second reading in the Commons.
Some in Dublin hope, but do not expect, that a Sunak-led Britain may pursue intensified negotiations with Brussels to simplify EU-required checks on British goods arriving in Northern Ireland, rather than unilaterally dumping those checks as the bill would enable.
“Sunak would be the one you’d hope would be most reasonable, but we’re dealing here in degrees of reason. He’s still a Brexiteer signed up to the cause,” said one government minister in Dublin.
“He’s certainly the one who’s most practical, in opposing immediate tax cuts in the face of inflation, for instance. He’s the one who’s the most rooted in reality and takes a more responsible approach.”
Irish bookmakers have made Sunak the favorite, but it’s hard to find lawmakers or officials in Dublin who agree he’s likely to win. Most think they’ll soon be dealing with Prime Minister Truss or Mordaunt.
Perhaps surprisingly, some consider a Truss triumph the less damaging outcome for Irish interests, sensing in her a known commodity who is more an opportunist than a principled Brexiteer.
“Mordaunt’s been a Brexiteer from the start, an acolyte of the ‘leave means leave’ mantra,” said the Dublin mandarin. “She’s in many ways an unknown. That poses its own risks. From an Irish and European perspective, she could be the worst pick of them all.”
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