When Prime Minister Rishi Sunak attends a summit of leaders from across the United Kingdom and Ireland on Thursday, he hopes to repair strained relations with Britain’s European Union neighbors — as well as highly skeptical leaders in Scotland and Wales.
It is the first time a British leader has attended the British Irish Council, which brings together government representatives from the United Kingdom, Ireland, and the semi-autonomous administrations of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. The self-governing British dependencies of the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man are also represented on the council, which was established following the 1998 peace agreement in Northern Ireland.
According to Sunak’s office, he will urge political leaders to “be pragmatic” and “work together in our shared interests.”
“Let’s deliver for all our people across these great islands – and build a future defined not by division, but by unity and hope,” he said.
It’s a significant shift in tone, if not substance, from Britain’s Conservative government.
Sunak, who took office last month, wants to repair ties with Ireland and the rest of the EU, which were strained by Britain’s acrimonious exit from the now-27-nation bloc in 2020. For much of that time, the United Kingdom’s prime minister was Boris Johnson, a Brexit supporter who seemed to take pleasure in infuriating EU officials.
Sunak, a long-time Brexit supporter, has taken a more conciliatory tone. Britain and the EU have recently resumed talks to resolve a long-simmering dispute over post-Brexit trade rules, which has soured UK-EU relations and triggered a political crisis in Northern Ireland.
Northern Ireland has been without a fully functioning government since February due to a dispute over post-Brexit customs checks on goods shipped to the region from elsewhere in the United Kingdom.
The checks are intended to keep the border open between Northern Ireland and neighboring Ireland, which is an EU member. However, they have enraged British Unionist politicians, who are refusing to form a coalition government with Irish nationalists because they believe the checks undermine Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom.
Northern Ireland is now facing an unwelcome new election, which the UK government postponed on Wednesday in the hope that a political solution can be found.
In the absence of a government, Northern Ireland will be represented at the council meeting by civil servants.
Sunak stated that he was determined “to see power sharing restored as soon as possible,” but it is unclear where a breakthrough might occur. Despite the improved tone of the talks, Britain and the EU have failed to reach an agreement on border checks.
Sunak will meet with Irish Prime Minister Micheál Martin, as well as the leaders of Scotland and Wales, Nicola Sturgeon and Mark Drakeford, at the summit in northwest England. Sunak’s predecessor, Liz Truss, snubbed Drakeford and Sturgeon, failing even to call them during her tumultuous 50 days in office.
Both Sturgeon, who is from the pro-independence Scottish National Party, and Labour Party politician Drakeford oppose many of the economic decisions made by the Conservative government in London. More squabbles are likely after Sunak’s government unveils a package of tax increases and spending cuts on Nov. 17 in an attempt to shore up the country’s crumbling economy.
Britain’s economy, which was already under strain due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the pandemic, and the fallout from Brexit, took a dive on Sept. 23 when Truss announced a massive package of unfunded tax cuts. The move alarmed financial markets, sending the pound to a record low against the dollar, and forcing the Bank of England to intervene to prevent the crisis from spreading.
Truss resigned less than a month later, leaving Sunak to find billions of dollars in savings to shore up the country’s finances.