DUBLIN – Steve Baker says he has a dream – that one day, Jeffrey Donaldson and the European Research Group of Brexiteer Tories will join him in building a new partnership with the Irish.
The U.K.’s junior Northern Ireland Office minister stole the show at the end of Thursday’s joint British-Irish government meeting in Dublin.
It was focused on finding a way to repair a Northern Ireland political process that has been gravely damaged by Brexit and the resultant trade protocol, which requires EU checks on British goods arriving at Northern Ireland ports.
The path ahead, both governments agreed, is to hope that a breakthrough agreement soon in ongoing London-Brussels negotiations would deliver enough changes to protocol checks for Donaldson’s Democratic Unionist Party to stop blocking the formation of a new cross-community government at Stormont, the core goal of Northern Ireland’s 1998 peace deal.
Journalists afterward pressed Baker and his Northern Ireland Office superior, Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris, about whether they were maintaining common cause behind the Westminster scenes with Donaldson and the Tory camp of arch-Brexiteers and compromise-wreckers.
Since taking the No. 2 ministerial job in Belfast, Baker has apologized for seeking a Brexit that didn’t sufficiently consider the damage it could do to the hard-won political balance in Northern Ireland.
To the visible pleasure of Irish Foreign Minister Micheál Martin, Baker doubled down on that Damascus Road rhetoric when defending his ongoing chats with Donaldson and members of an ERG pressure group that he and Heaton-Harris had taken turns leading when Brexit was still a “sunlit uplands” dream.
He even upstaged his boss by demonstrating ease with the language of Irish nationalism, which includes Gaelic office titles that can perplex English eyeballs.
While Heaton-Harris again mumbled his own hesitant attempt to say Martin’s title for deputy prime minister – Tánaiste, pronounced TAW-nish-tuh – Baker delivered it smoothly.
“I’m very proud that two former ERG chairmen have been part of completely transforming – if I may say so, Tánaiste – this relationship, and I’m pleased,” Baker told the press conference. “Because we’re now on a positive trajectory together. We’re always going to face problems, but we’re going to face those problems together and rise to them.”
As for his ongoing discussions with Donaldson and the Tory rump of ERG diehards, Baker billed this as necessary diplomacy to steer them toward more moderate positions: “I very much hope we will bring the DUP and Euroskeptic MPs to the same positive place in our relations with Ireland.”
‘Substance and breadth’
It was music to the ears for Martin, a conciliatory figure who only last month stepped down as Taoiseach (TEE-shuck), the Irish prime minister. Martin has spent recent years distraught by the severe deterioration in relations with a Conservative Party apparently bent on confrontation with Brussels, an approach that often included giving short shrift to the views of Dublin.
“Could I endorse what Steve has just said,” Martin told reporters. “I don’t think we’ve had such a broad-ranging British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference in many a day in terms of the substance and breadth and range of subjects covered.”
Martin credited this rapid improvement in London-Dublin relations to September’s assignment of Heaton-Harris and Baker to the Belfast portfolio, followed by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s rise to power weeks later.
“We want to maintain this momentum in the British-Irish relationship and we want to work patiently, understanding each other’s positions, working through the challenges as they present themselves,” Martin said.
The post-meeting press conference narrowly avoided ending on a much sourer note. Minders had tried to stop it after a journalist asked Heaton-Harris if he would apologize in the same vein as Baker for his government’s decision last week to bar Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald from a key Belfast meeting to discuss the U.K.-EU talks on fixing the protocol.
Heaton-Harris declined to express any regret for an incident that ended up as a propaganda godsend for the Irish republicans.
“What happened in the past happened in the past. We move forward. Thank you,” was all a suddenly curt Heaton-Harris would say on the diplomatic own-goal.
Earlier, he had joined joking with Baker about their current relations with ERG members. When asked if they had attended the latest ERG gathering with Donaldson on Monday, both said no.
“I do see Jeffrey often and I see my good friends in the ERG often, but I was not at that meeting. Although I wouldn’t have minded being at that meeting,” Baker said.
“I wasn’t flipping invited again,” Heaton-Harris said, turning to a laughing Martin: “I said flipping, I promise you.”