An apparent apology by a hardline Tory Brexiteer for Britain’s bad faith in its dealings with Ireland and the EU has been given a cautious welcome.
Steve Baker (pictured), a Minister of State in London’s Northern Ireland Office, said that he and others did not “always behave in a way which encouraged Ireland and the European Union to trust us to accept that they have legitimate interests”.
“I am sorry about that,” he said, speaking at the Conservative Party’s annual conference in Manchester. He said “relations with Ireland are not where they should be and we all need to work extremely hard to improve them”.
He was speaking on a panel alongside the North’s new Direct Ruler Chris Heaton-Harris. The discussion centred around the Irish Protocol of Brexit, which prevents a reintroduction of a reinforced border on the island of Ireland. The deal has angered unionists who argue that trade checks at seaports in the north of Ireland amount to an ‘Irish Sea Border’.
Legislation which undoes the deal and overrides the Good Friday Agreement is still proceeding through the London Parliament. It was drafted by the current British PM Liz Truss when she served as Foreign Minister under her predecessor, Boris Johnson.
After years of combative jingoism, Baker’s expression of sympathy for the Irish and EU position amazed political commentators and dismayed hardline unionists. The DUP’s Edwin Poots warned of a “funeral” for the Good Friday Agreement if his party’s concerns over the Protocol are not resolved.
The former Agriculture Minister insisted that his party would not return to Stormont until issues were resolved. The DUP withdrew its support for powersharing in February in protest at the post-Brexit trading arrangements, collapsing the Six County administration.
Poots claimed that unionist anger is such that cross-community support for the 1998 peace deal no longer exists.
“Whenever Ireland invites President (Joe) Biden to come over for the 25th anniversary of the Belfast Agreement in Easter next year, unless something radical happens and the EU decide to become a bit more realistic, then he’ll be coming over to the funeral of the Good Friday Agreement, not to a celebration of its 25th anniversary,” he said.
With talks between the EU and Britain due to resume on Thursday, both the Taoiseach Micheál Martin and British Prime Minister Liz Truss have called for Stormont to be restored immediately.
Current legislation states that the British Direct Ruler must call an election by October 28 if the Stormont institutions are not restored by then. Previous such deadlines have often been bypassed at Westmister.
But Heaton-Harris insisted: “I am going to push that button.
“If there is no election, the executive is stumbling around in this stupor that it is now. It is really important to have an executive functioning.
“I think history tells us elections do change things in Northern Ireland. I am not going to pre-judge any election, but the primary legislation says that and I will call the election.
“I am not going to backtrack, this will be done. I exactly mean what I say and I will be calling an election on October 28.”