Despite signs he knows little about Ireland, the selection of former Chancellor Rishi Sunak as the next British Prime Minister has been greeted as preferable to the return of Boris Johnson, who ended a bid for a shock return to power last night.
It is understood Johnson failed to secure a commitment from sufficient number of MPs to force a runoff vote among Tory party members. The withdrawal from the race of Penny Mordaunt also avoided a need for a potentially divisive rerun of the competition for the support of the party membership, which disastrously brought Liz Truss to power ahead of Sunak last month.
Sunak, who is of Punjabi descent, makes history as Britain’s first ethnic-minority Prime Minister, but he has never opposed the racially-driven ideology of the Tory far right.
His speaking record shows few signs any understanding of the nature of British rule in Ireland. During the previous campaign to replace Johnson he offensively began an address to a local audience in Belfast with the line, “My fellow Britons”.
Despite this, Dublin government officials reportedly consider Sunak a relief following the years of instability under Johnson, and potentially “more pragmatic”.
A return of Johnson’s jingoistic confrontationalism could have had dire consequences for the recent renewal of talks to implement the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement and the protocol to avoid a hard border.
Unionist politicians are also uncertain about Sunak’s approach, but have shown no expectation he will intervene to prevent a election to the Stormont Assembly. An election is due to take place in December if the DUP do not end their boycott of power-sharing by Thursday.
There have also been calls by British opposition leaders for Sunak to call a full Westminster general election to secure a mandate. Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon sent her congratulations and pledged to build a “constructive working relationship” with the new PM, but added: “For Scotland, of course, he becomes another PM we did not and, without doubt would not, vote for even if given the chance.”
In a sign of trouble ahead, current Direct Rule Minister and extreme Brexiteer Steve Baker issued a very hostile warning to Sunak that he and others would “implode” his new administration if a hardline policy on the protocol is not continued. Mr Baker issued the warning on Sky TV, having ironically just declared his support for Sunak’s candidacy.
His comments were denounced by Sinn Féin as “a reiteration of the reckless Tory threats that have fuelled instability and caused damage on the international stage.”
“Whoever leads the incoming British government must make the restoration of the Assembly and Executive an immediate priority and end the cycle of pandering to the DUP,” said Sinn Féin MP John Finucane.
Speaking in Belfast, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald also again hit out the main unionist party who she said is “punishing the public” over their opposition to the Brexit deal.
“The DUP claim to be committed Devolutionists, yet all they have done is left us at the mercy of the dysfunction at Westminster and the chaotic Tory party,” she said.
She said the alternative is not direct rule from London, but a joint partnership approach from London and Dublin.
“And in both scenarios Sinn Féin will be central,” she said. “We do not want fractured relationships, we want partnership, co-operation and to make politics work in the interests of all the people, and Michelle O’Neill to be a First Minister for All working with partners in government.”