The Prime Minister goes to Belfast and may puzzle over some numbers on the way back

By Simon Gentry, Newgate Public Affairs

The Prime Minister is in Northern Ireland today meeting leaders in Stormont and then Micheál Martin, the Fianna Fáil leader and new Taoiseach at Hillsborough Castle.

Mr Johnson is positioning himself as a ‘salesman for the Union’ and will meet First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill to discuss how the Westminster government and the Northern Irish governments have cooperated during the pandemic.  Unlike Scotland and to a lesser extent Wales, London feels that the cooperation with Belfast has been successful and the Prime Minister is keen to underline that.

The meeting with the Taoiseach will be more complicated.  The Republic is wary of the UK’s plans for the North when the UK exists the Brexit transition period in December.  It is also in an uncomfortable position in the context of the UK-EU trade negotiations.  The vast majority of its trade, and transport links, are with the UK, and yet it does look like there is a very good chance that there will not be a comprehensive trade deal done before 31 December.  Ireland will be uniquely exposed in that situation with consequences that are hard to define.

Despite a very messy political situation following an inconclusive election which resulted in a complicated power-sharing/revolving seat/pass the parcel-type coalition, Ireland is walking tall on the world stage with key posts in the EU and a (temporary) seat on the UN Security Council.  

The situation in the North is, from the British perspective, at least a bit less spikey.  The Northern Ireland Assembly is up and running and the two main parties appear to be cooperating well, despite the occasional bumps.  London is delighted that it is not having to administer the province anymore and that it can retreat to a safe distance and let the locals get on with it. 

Finally, polling data which looks at the way the public view the government’s handling of the crisis continues to baffle.  The Conservative party is now higher in the polls than it was last December when they achieved a near landslide, but at the same time only 40% of people think its handling the pandemic ‘well’.  In Germany the figure is 71% but in France and the US its 38%.  The British are the most enthusiastic about working from home with 67% supporting government guidance on this.  Only 57% of the French support it and 48% of Germans.  If we try to measure whether people are feeling any happier, the US is currently getting unhappier on -3%, France is on 2%, Germany 8%.  We’re the winners on 11%.

Those curious numbers will probably give the PM some satisfaction as he sips his G n’ T on his flight back to London this evening.

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