Dublin and Brussels wait for signals from Truss on Northern Ireland protocol

Death of Queen Elizabeth II means that talk of calls or meetings with the Taoiseach are on hold

Negotiation or conflict? Agreement or breakdown? Free trade or trade war? Dublin and Brussels are waiting for a clear sign from the new British government on whether it will continue with the policy of the Johnson administration on a collision course with the European Union over the Northern Ireland protocol, or whether new prime minister Liz Truss will seek to have meaningful negotiations and a genuine effort at a solution.

Sources in Dublin and Brussels agree that the signs are “not good”. Even if the mood was lifted slightly by the call between the Taoiseach and Truss yesterday. In her first day in the House of Commons as prime minister, Truss indicated no softening of the UK position; her appointment of two Brexit hardliners, Chris Heaton-Harris and Steve Baker, to the Northern Ireland Office suggested as much.

One source tries to be optimistic, suggesting that if you wanted to compromise, you would send in the hardliners to do it. Another official agrees, but adds that if you didn’t want to compromise, you would also send in the hardliners.

The one thing that everyone agrees on: we’ll have to wait and see. The death of Queen Elizabeth II means that talk of calls or meetings with the Taoiseach are on hold for the moment. The period of mourning, the memorials, the funeral and the accession of the new king will take up the British government’s — and the whole country’s — attention for several days.


So what do we know so far about Truss’s likely intentions?

The call between the Taoiseach and Truss was well received by Irish sources, who noted its warmth and generally positive tone. The two leaders agreed they wanted and would work for a negotiated solution – but there was no substantive engagement on the issue of the protocol, and it remains unclear if there will even be the basis for serious negotiations. But the call went as well as could have reasonably been expected (not least because Truss has learned how to pronounce “Taoiseach”) and allowed to two leaders to get off on the right foot.

Earlier in the week, the new Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Chris Heaton-Harris had a telephone call with Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney on his first day in the job. Officials briefed on the call said the atmosphere was warm but that no substantive issues relating to the protocol were discussed by the two men.

They know each other personally from their time as MEPs in Brussels and greeted each other by first names. Both tweeted about it afterwards, Heaton-Harris effusively: “Good to refresh a great old friendship,” he said. “Good initial conversation,” said Coveney, slightly more circumspect. “Looking forward to meeting in the coming weeks. A lot of work to do together.”

The external pressures which hemmed Boris Johnson in have not changed with Truss’s accession. Before the news about the queen’s death broke on Thursday, Truss had spoken to two foreign leaders — US president Joe Biden and German chancellor Olaf Scholz. In both conversations, the Northern Ireland protocol was discussed.

The White House later emphasised the importance of the protocol — talking not just in generic terms about the peace process or the Belfast Agreement as previously, but specifically about the protocol, and linking it to a future UK-US trade agreement. Given that one of Truss’s (questionable) boasts as foreign secretary has been that she has secured trade deals around the world, and the totemic importance of a US trade deal for Brexiteers, this must have been dispiriting.

She told Scholz, according to the Downing St readout of the call, that they needed to find “a solution to the fundamental problems with the text of the protocol as it stands”, but the EU position is that the agreed text can’t change, even if there can be discussions on how it is applied.

The two calls only underscored how isolated the UK is internationally on the protocol.

Irish officials and political sources — trusted by EU governments and the Commission to be the best informed on the British position — veer between cautious optimism and deep pessimism about the likely approach of the new British government. “Near despair” is how one source characterises the mood, but another official says the attitude is “let’s give them a chance”.

At last week’s British-Irish Association in Oxford, an annual chin-wagging session between people involved at a political and official level in Anglo-Irish relations and designed specifically to let them talk informally to each other, Micheál Martin and Coveney made clear to British government attendees that the EU is open to changes on how the protocol is implemented — but won’t play ball with threats to rip it up. Maroš Šefčovič, the European Commission’s negotiator, was also there. His message, according to one official, was: “We want to work with you but we can’t rip up the agreement, and if you do that it will go down like a lead balloon.” The British response remained non-committal.

Some Irish officials have noted, however, that Truss said little about the Northern Ireland protocol during the leadership campaign, perhaps because she wasn’t asked about it all that often. The truth is that Northern Ireland doesn’t matter all that much to the Tory grassroots who made the decision to choose Truss as the country’s prime minister, even if many of them instinctively want to poke the EU in the eye.

An analysis of her statements during the campaign by Politico revealed that she said only three things about the North: that she would “continue what I started in the Foreign Office” to find a solution that “respects Northern Ireland’s position as a key part of our United Kingdom”; that it was necessary to scrap parts of the protocol to persuade the DUP to establish the Stormont Executive; and that she would establish freeports — tax-free zones to encourage economic activity — in Northern Ireland. The idea that the protocol is central to her premiership seems a remote one.

The hope in Dublin is that the political gravity of the energy crisis will prompt Truss to seek a compromise, rather than pursue conflict with the EU, the hostility of the White House and the political unrest in Northern Ireland that would inevitably ensue. For now, however, as Britain mourns its queen, that remains only a hope — and perhaps a slim one.

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy is Political Editor of The Irish Times