Sunak follows up Downing Street soaking by a visit to site of Titanic

Fortunately, NI Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris was on hand to remind the British prime minister of the Taoiseach’s name

In the Downing Street planning meeting, it must have seemed like a great idea.

On paper, it presumably read something like this: British prime minister Rishi Sunak glides up Belfast Lough on a high-tech “flying” boat built by a local company, accompanied by his trusty sidekick, Northern Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris.

They step on to the dock to take questions from the waiting media; be sure to position the TV camera to get the yellow Harland and Wolff cranes in the background, for the clip on the evening news. Northern Ireland is done, back on the plane by lunchtime.

James McCarthy from Belfast Live asked what everybody else was thinking: “We are just yards away from where the Titanic was built … Are you captaining a sinking ship going into this election?”


Cue nervous smiles from Sunak and Heaton-Harris. If this PR exercise aimed to put some clear blue water between Sunak and his Downing Street soaking earlier this week, it was perhaps not the best choice.

In fairness, the media was already in a restive mood. The Number 10 comms team initially sent reporters to the wrong address, then had to dispatch someone to rescue them from the car park of an industrial estate. That got sorted out just in time for another kerfuffle, this time over splitting the “national” media from the “regional” — their terminology — so that each group could not overhear the others’ questions.

It says something of the UK government’s worldview that The Irish Times and RTÉ — a national newspaper and the national broadcaster — were in the “regional” huddle.

The headline announcement was “significant funding” for Casement Park, though with no figure or timescale; that and the prime minister’s “commitment” to Northern Ireland.

They listed their achievements: the Windsor Framework and the Command Paper which paved the way for the restoration of Stormont. “We’ve done some decent stuff,” was about as much enthusiasm as Heaton-Harris could muster.

The reality is that, though the Conservative party stands candidates in Northern Ireland there are no seats to be won here.

Last time around, in 2019, it stood in four out of 18 constituencies and received a total of 0.7 per cent of the vote; this time it was RTÉ Northern Editor Vincent Kearney who stated the obvious. “In election terms, isn’t this visit a waste of time?”

“I’m here because I care deeply about Northern Ireland, the people of Northern Ireland, and our union,” was Sunak’s response; so deeply, indeed, that the only people he met during his brief visit were employees of Artemis Technologies and the “grumpy” media pack, as one of its luminaries put it.

Ultimately, this was about ticking a Northern Ireland-shaped box; while Sunak may have been speaking in Belfast, what he was saying was firmly aimed at his “national” audience, across the water in England.

Hence, on his plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda, his claim that the flights “will go in July and that’s the choice of this election … the only person who doesn’t believe in that is [the Labour leader] Keir Starmer”.

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It fell to The Irish Times to note that it was not only Starmer, there was also Mr Justice Michael Humphreys in the High Court in Belfast, who recently ruled parts of his plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda could not apply in Northern Ireland because it was in breach of international human rights law.

“We are appealing that ruling for very, very good reason and we are confident,” said the Northern Secretary. Luckily Heaton-Harris was on hand, just as he finished outlining the “excellent” personal relationships between London and Dublin, to remind Sunak of the Taoiseach’s name.

But this is all so much water under the bridge — or indeed, beneath the dock in Belfast Lough. By lunchtime, Sunak had departed for Birmingham and the next stop in his election tour.

Freya McClements

Freya McClements

Freya McClements is Northern Editor of The Irish Times