Backlash as arch-Brexiteer appointed to Northern Ireland Office

Steve Baker Credit: PA Archive/PA Images

Liz Truss has been accused of sending a “destructive message” to the EU by handing arch-Brexiteer Steve Baker a ministerial role in the Northern Ireland Office.

The decision was branded “obnoxious” and a “red flag” by SDLP MP Claire Hanna, as she claimed Ms Truss appeared to be “continuing down the diplomatically ignorant route of her predecessor”.

Mr Baker, who organised the Brexiteer revolt that ultimately brought down Theresa May, has described the Northern Ireland Protocol as “a thorn in the side of relations between us and Ireland”.

He has supported the Government’s controversial proposed reforms to the post-Brexit treaty, which have exacerbated tensions with the EU.

Ms Hanna suggested Ms Truss had foregone an opportunity to “build bridges” in her first days as Prime Minister.

“The appointment of another hard-line Eurosceptic to a senior position in the Northern Ireland Office is a red flag when issues related to the protocol remain politically sensitive,” she said.

“Liz Truss has an opportunity to make the case for a negotiated resolution with the European Union in the interests of people across these islands. These appointments seem in stark contrast to that objective.

“Privatising this issue to the DUP and ERG has not only failed in the past, it has brought down previous governments.

“Elevating Steve Baker to NIO in particular is an obnoxious decision that will send a destructive message to the European Commission and to parties in Northern Ireland.

“Liz Truss could have taken the opportunity to build bridges and make allies in the early days of her premiership. Instead she seems to be continuing down the diplomatically ignorant route of her predecessor.”

Former Northern Ireland secretary Julian Smith congratulated Mr Baker on his new role.

He urged the new minister to work with Chris Heaton-Harris – who now heads up the department – to “push urgently for a compromise deal” with the EU to deliver a revised protocol and restore powersharing in Northern Ireland.

It comes as the new Northern Ireland Secretary urged Stormont party leaders to form an executive "as soon as possible".

In his opening remarks to the Commons on Wednesday, Mr Heaton-Harris, who was appointed to the role on Tuesday night, told MPs that he would be speaking to each of the party leaders in Northern Ireland about the current situation.

Chris Heaton-Harris MP.

He told MPs: "I know the House shares my view that Northern Ireland needs a stable, fully functioning devolved government to deliver on the issues that matter to people most."

The DUP withdrew from the Executive earlier this year in protest over the post-Brexit Northern Ireland Protocol, a special arrangement that keeps Northern Ireland in the EU's single market for goods, avoiding a hard border with the Republic of Ireland.

But the arrangement is deeply unpopular with unionists because it includes checks on goods moving between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

The Government is progressing a Bill to give ministers powers to override parts of the agreement.

New Prime Minister Liz Truss told the Commons: "My preference is for a negotiated solution, but it does have to deliver all of the things we set out in the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill.

"And what we cannot allow is for this situation to drift because my number one priority is protecting the supremacy of the Belfast Good Friday Agreement."

Conor Burns, in his final appearance as Northern Ireland minister, also thanked former prime minister Sir Tony Blair and former taoiseach Bertie Ahern "for their assistance in the work that I have done over the summer" in trying to resolve protocol matters.

Mr Heaton-Harris earlier said he would prefer a negotiated settlement with the European Union, but the UK Government remained committed to progressing the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill.

He also told MPs there is a "fairly obvious landing zone for the negotiations" although did not go into specifics.

Conservative former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers said: "The main barrier to the resumption of devolved powersharing government is of course the Northern Ireland Protocol.

"So will he undertake to push that legislation through as quickly as possible and use the Parliament Act to get it through if necessary?"

Mr Heaton-Harris replied in the Commons: "We are committed to resolving the problems in the protocol, ideally through a negotiation, but, if not, through legislation, so yes."

Shadow Northern Ireland secretary Peter Kyle sought assurances that the UK Government's position on getting Stormont up and running was unchanged, with Mr Heaton-Harris replying: "We're very clear, the protocol negotiation is between the EU and the UK, but yes the position is completely unchanged."

He later told Mr Kyle: "I am very keen we try and negotiate a solution with the European Union and sort out the issues of the protocol. However, we do have legislation ready, we've discussed it in this House and if we do not get a negotiated solution, we will legislate."

DUP MP Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) told Mr Heaton-Harris: "I hope he will be successful in doing what is necessary to get Stormont restored, namely removing the poison of the protocol."

Mr Heaton-Harris is expected in Northern Ireland on Thursday for meetings with political leaders.

Sinn Fein vice president Michelle O'Neill tweeted: "I will meet with Chris Heaton-Harris tomorrow and will make it clear that his first priority must be getting an executive up and running.

"Workers, families and small businesses need our help now.

"There can be no more delays."

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