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New premier too level-headed, even dull, to upset NI applecart

By Eilis O'Hanlon

Published 12/07/2016

Northern Ireland right now is in the same position as Larry the Downing Street cat. We've just been saddled with a new owner too, as David Cameron packs his belongings and newly-elected Tory leader Theresa May gets set to move in to Number 10.

Like Larry, we don't know if she's going to give us the best armchair by the fire or kick us out in the cold each night. So what will Mrs May's premiership mean for Northern Ireland?

First things first. It could be worse. At least it's not Jeremy Corbyn, whose understanding of Northern Irish politics rarely stretches beyond the level of a Sinn Fein pamphlet circa 1981.

The new PM was also a Remainer, albeit a half-hearted one. Heaven knows how it would have gone down had a region that was second only to Scotland in its enthusiasm for staying in the UK been saddled with Andrea Leadsom or Michael Gove as PM. Those giddy calls for a border poll would have become deafening.

Theresa May's a much steadier figure, which is why local politicians have been struggling to find anything to say about her, good or bad. UUP leader Mike Nesbit dredged up some story about introducing her during the recent referendum campaign to local agri-food producers. As anecdotes go, it wasn't exactly riveting, but then you can only work with what you're given, and Theresa May gives little away.

Of all local leaders, First Minister Arlene Foster tried hardest, praising May for having a "positive history" with Northern Ireland.

Presumably she was too polite to mention May's discomfiture when parachuted into the province during the 2010 general election to bat for the ill-fated and unfortunately-named UCUNF (Ulster Conservatives and Unionist New Force) alliance.

The DUP mocked her mercilessly at the time for not being on top of local issues and names, and no doubt have their fingers firmly crossed that she's the forgiving and forgetting type.

Her views on Northern Ireland look to be standard Tory unionist with a small 'u'. Not an ideologue in the Gove mould, though she has said some things that troubled nationalists, not least her call earlier this year for the UK to leave the European Convention on Human Rights, which just happens to underpin the framework of the Belfast Agreement. That caused a brief kerfuffle, but she quickly backtracked. Likewise, her strongly-expressed views on the need for border controls between the two parts of the island in the event of Brexit can surely be seen in the same light as her warning during Scotland's independence vote that people on both sides of that border would need "passport checks to visit friends and relatives". In other words, the sort of thing you say during a campaign, then diplomatically wriggle out of afterwards.

Even if she was inclined to talk tough on Ulster, May as PM probably wouldn't do anything about it any more than she did when, as Home Secretary, she talked tough on immigration whilst presiding over a huge increase in it. In fact, it would be a wonder if we were in her thoughts much at all. She's too level-headed, even dull, to want to shake things up here.

There's even speculation that Theresa Villiers will remain as Secretary of State in May's first Cabinet, the surest sign that nothing will change dramatically. Which is nice for Mrs Villiers, as it's not all that clear what else she'd be good for, but does indicate what a low priority we now have on the British political scene. Be thankful for small mercies. Being high on the agenda usually means trouble.

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