Liz Truss And Rishi Sunak Promise Protocol Action In "Neglected" Northern Ireland
Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak held a hustings for Conservative members in Northern Ireland on Wednesday. (Alamy)
There was a rare moment of harmony between Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak when on Wednesday they travelled to Northern Ireland for their eighth Conservative party leadership hustings.
The pair addressed around 100 Tory members at Belfast's Culloden Hotel, a grand, five-star hotel five miles out of the city, with vast gardens and impressive views of Belfast Lough.
Members PoliticsHome spoke to at the event said that they felt "neglected" by the UK leaders in London, and that there was a "disconnect" with the region, which does not have a significant Conservative party presence.
Brexit, and specifically the Northern Ireland Protocol – a contentious treaty that avoided a hard border on the island of Ireland by creating a border in the Irish Sea, but has led to accusations Westminster has undermined Northern Ireland's place in the United Kingdom – was inevitably top of the agenda.
"There is probably not a lot of disagreement between me and Liz on this," said Sunak, the ex-chancellor, when in the final few minutes of the hour-long hustings he was asked how he would get Stormont's institutions back up-and-running if elected Prime Minister on 5 September.
Northern Ireland has been without a functioning government and parliament since February, with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP)'s staunch opposition to the Northern Ireland Protocol fuelling its continued refusal to form an executive with Sinn Fein, who became the region's largest party after May's election.
Both Sunak and Truss told members in Belfast today that the only way to restore Northern Ireland's institutions was by addressing the DUP's problems with the Northern Ireland Protocol, and that they would do whatever it would take to rectify the post-Brexit treaty for trade across the Irish Sea.
Both candidates are committed to delivering the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, which is currently making its way through parliament. The legislation would give the government the power to rip up swathes of the post-Brexit treaty if it fails to reach an agreement with the European Union.
But there was a feeling expressed among some attendees in the room that the scale of the challenges facing Northern Ireland had not received enough attention during the campaign.
Despite the paralysis in Stormont, which has plunged Northern Ireland into yet another constitutional crisis, the region has barely featured in the Conservative party leadership debate up until now, bar the odd question about the UK's ongoing stand-off with the European Commission.
In the first question of the hustings, Terry from the South Antrim Conservative Association pointed out that Truss failed to mention that Northern Ireland was without a government in her opening remarks.
“I noted that in your speech you didn’t mention the statement in Stormont," he said.
"If you are elected prime minister, what will you do to restore a democratic government in this part of the world which is not held hostage over this, that or other?”
Truss, who described herself as a "child of the Union" in her introductory speech, told Terry that she was "determined" to restore the executive and the assembly as soon as possible.
"This is exactly what I’ve been working on with the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill because until we sort out that issue, we are not going to get Stormont back up and running," she said.
Speaking to PoliticsHome shortly after the Q&A, Tory party member Jack complained that Northern Ireland had barely been on the agenda in the race to succeed Johnson in 10 Downing Street.
“It's especially the case with the Conservative party, and generally in Westminster politics, that Northern Ireland is very much ignored and neglected," he said.
"The Northern Ireland Protocol is the biggest outstanding Brexit issue and it had rarely been discussed in this leadership campaign, until they came to Northern Ireland."
Jack, who lives in Belfast, said there was a "major disconnect" between the Conservative government in Westminster and "all communities" in Northern Ireland.
Truss-backer Matthew Robinson, who chairs the Northern Irish Conservatives, insisted that Northern Ireland had not been excluded from the Tory leadership debate this summer.
“Lots of issues have been covered in this campaign, from the war in Ukraine, to the cost-of-living crisis, to our free trade agenda," he told PoliticsHome.
"But Northern Ireland has rightly had the attention it deserves."
He added: “The party has always delivered here in the absence of a functioning Stormont executive. The reason we have same-sex marriage and the reason we have woman’s right to choose in relation to abortion laws is the proactive decision-making of Conservative governments.”
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