Northern Ireland

John Manley: Should we be grateful for small mercies like Rishi Sunak?

The prime minister jetted into Belfast on the campaign trail

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak with his hands in his pockets in Belfast with outgoing NI Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris on the latest leg of his election campaign tour in Belfast. PICTURE: MAL MCCANN
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in Belfast. PICTURE: MAL MCCANN

“Hi, I’m Rishi,” said the British prime minister as he pressed the flesh with workers on the shop floor at a boat builder’s on Belfast’s Queen’s Island.

The workers seemed happy to indulge Mr Sunak, who was accompanied by Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris, but there was a sense that everybody can’t help but be underwhelmed by the Tory leader.

Small in stature and of slender build, the prime minister has an aura closer to that of an adolescent schoolboy than a statesman. Nonetheless, an entourage of ‘national’ media traipsed after him around the factory, filming and photographing every cursory engagement as it were hugely significant.

Perhaps the hope is that amid all the haphazard encounters something unscripted will prove newsworthy?

Beyond predictable references to the sinking of the Titanic, which was built and launched nearby, the only talking point was how Downing Street had managed to provide local journalists with the wrong location, initially directing them to a building some 500m away.

Rishi Sunak during his campaign visit to the maritime technology centre at Artemis Technology in Belfast, Northern Ireland
Rishi Sunak and Chris Heaton-Harris during a visit to Artemis Technology in Belfast. PICTURE: STEFAN ROSSEAU

The whole event gave off strong ‘The Thick of It’ vibes, as if at any moment mild calamity would give way to complete chaos.

Mr Sunak was visiting the north as part of a whistle-stop tour of the UK to kick-off the election campaign. He was reminded on more than one occasion that there’s negligible support for the Conservatives in the region (0.7% vote share) but he insisted he wanted show how much he cared about the people of Northern Ireland and the union.

The prime minister’s commitment and concern didn’t extend to providing assurances around funding for Casement Park to ensure it’s ready for Euro 2028.

His modest contribution was to simply repeat ad infinitum that the British government would make a “substantial contribution” to the project but whatever that means it clearly falls well short of Mr Heaton-Harris’s ‘blank cheque’ inference a year ago.

We’re unlikely to be privileged with another Rishi Sunak visit before his widely anticipated exit from No 10 in July, so it seems an appropriate time to assess his legacy.

It’s fair to say that he has been better for the north than his two predecessors. After the deep euroscepticism and amateurishness of Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, the prime minister’s pragmatic approach to Brussels, which delivered the Windsor Framework, was a breath of fresh air.

The indulgence of the DUP that followed was less endearing but after almost eight years of duplicity and bickering, he did bring closure, and with it some stability, to the Brexit saga.

Elsewhere it’s difficult to identify any other positives, just more of the same jingoistic and self-serving disregard of human rights, whether it be the continued support for flawed legacy legislation or the madcap Rwanda scheme.

Few are likely to shed a tear with Mr Sunak’s departure but it’s worth remembering what could have been had Liz Truss prevailed.

We should perhaps be grateful for small mercies like Rishi Sunak.