Taoiseach Micheál Martin and British prime minister Rishi Sunak have spoken for the first time since Mr Sunak’s appointment, and agreed on the need for engagement between the UK and the European Union to resolve the impasse over the Northern Ireland Protocol
Mr Martin spoke to Mr Sunak on Wednesday evening, and said they had had a “good conversation” in which they had also discussed “co-operation in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine”.
The two leaders agreed on what Mr Martin said was the importance of EU and UK engagement as a means of finding solutions to the political crisis surrounding the Northern Ireland Protocol. They also discussed ongoing development in Northern Ireland, and spoke of the importance of a strong British-Irish relationship.
In a statement, No 10 Downing St said Mr Sunak had “set out that his preference remained a negotiated outcome” and he “hoped all parties would approach the current challenges with pragmatism and goodwill”. The statement said the two leaders had “agreed on the urgent need for a functioning executive in Northern Ireland”.
The conversation lasted for about 20 minutes.
Mr Sunak made a round of telephone calls with world leaders on Wednesday, including US president Joe Biden, a day after he succeeded Liz Truss as prime minister.
Mr Biden also brought up the issue of the protocol in the course of the call. A statement from Downing Street said Mr Sunak and Mr Biden “agreed on the need to ensure the people of Northern Ireland have security and prosperity through preserving the Belfast Agreement”.
Earlier on Wednesday the British government confirmed it had delayed the proposed Halloween emergency statement on the economy for three weeks, saying it would upgrade it to what would be, in effect, a full budget in mid-November.
Chancellor of the exchequer Jeremy Hunt had been preparing to publish the statement next Monday, aimed at repairing a €45 billion (€52bn) “fiscal hole”. This was caused by uncosted proposals in the catastrophic “mini-budget” introduced by former prime minister Liz Truss and her chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng in early October.
Minutes before Mr Sunak appeared for his first prime minister’s questions in the House of Commons, Mr Hunt announced that the statement would be delayed until November 17th, and would be upgraded to a full “autumn statement”.
Describing the change as a prudent move, Mr Hunt told the BBC that with a new prime minister in place there was a prospect of much longer-term stability for the economy and the country. “In that context a short 2½-week delay is the best way we will make sure we make the right decisions,” he said.
After the negative reaction from international markets to the original “mini-budget”, the cost of debt for the UK has fallen since Mr Sunak took up office and the pound has made gains against the dollar. With a period of economic calm expected after the economic turmoil of recent weeks, Mr Sunak’s advisers in Number 10 also want the opportunity to study Mr Hunt’s plans in depth. It has been reported that he had advocated substantial departmental cuts, an approach that might not be fully shared by the prime minister.
The change came as Mr Sunak and his cabinet colleagues faced continuing criticism on Wednesday over his appointment of Suella Braverman as home secretary. Making his first appearance at the despatch box, Mr Sunak defended his decision to reinstate Ms Braverman, a leading figure of the party’s right-wing, to the same position she resigned from seven days ago after breaching the ministerial code.
Ms Braverman sent a sensitive government document on immigration from her personal email account to a person who was not authorised to receive it.
The issue was raised by Labour leader Keir Starmer. “The home secretary made an error of judgment, she raised the matter and accepted the mistake,” Mr Sunak replied.
The prime minister deflected all further questions on Ms Braverman’s appointment.
Mr Starmer accused Mr Sunak of being “so weak he has done a grubby deal trading national security because he was afraid of losing a [leadership] election. As always with the Tories, party first and country second.”