What can expect from the man who’s got the job most people didn’t want?
If press speculation is to be believed, Chris Heaton-Harris was the not the first, second or possibly third choice for the role of Northern Ireland Secretary of State, but to the victor the spoils, as they say, so the question is ‘what next?’
The fact that Mr Heaton-Harris is an avowed Brexiteer - as evidenced by his chairmanship of the ERG – should endear him to the anti- Protocol parties. Certainly Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) leader Jim Allister, who worked with Mr Heaton-Harris in Brussels when they were both MEP, tweeted they had been “on the same in Eurosceptic battles” and always found him “good to work with."
The DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson also tweeted a welcome to the new man saying he is looking forward to working with him. However, privately, the DUP are a little more cautious. It’s not clear what Liz Truss’s government will do to fix the NI Protocol impasse. Will it negotiate (and inevitably compromise) with the EU, trigger Article 16 or press ahead with the controversial NI Protocol bill?
“We’ll will wait to see the cut of their gib,” one DUP source told me.
Sinn Féin will also want to sound out the new NI Secretary of State.
They won’t have long to wait. Party Vice President Michelle O’Neill is due to speak to Mr Heaton-Harris tomorrow. The party insists the “immediate priority” for the new Secretary of State is to get the Executive up and running to help struggling families and its suspicion is clear. In a statement the party warns the government must end what it describes as its “partisan approach.”
The new Secretary of State is not getting much time to get his feet under the table. He faced his first NI Questions this afternoon. In his very first question he said the government prefers a negotiated solution with the EU to the NI Protocol impasse, but added it will legislate if a deal is not possible. Furthermore he indicated the government would be willing to use the Parliament Act if it appears the House of Lords is going to try to block the passage of the controversial NI Protocol bill.
Later on, his new boss in her first Prime Minister Questions, repeated that position, but Liz Truss doubled down by saying any settlement with the EU must deliver on “all the things contained the NI Protocol bill” as well as warning the situation cannot be allowed “to drift”.
As a former Chief Whip Mr Heaton-Harris knows how to handle politicians and make deals. It’s a particular skill set much evidenced by another former Chief-Whip-turned-NI-Secretary-of-State Julian Smith.
Like Mr Smith, Mr Heaton-Harris arrives in Northern Ireland with devolution collapsed. We’ll have to wait and see if he can manage to tread his way through Northern Ireland’s complicated political landscape to rescue its languishing institutions.
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