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Northern Ireland minister apologises for past ‘ferocious’ Brexit stance

Steve Baker (Jacob King/PA)
Steve Baker (Jacob King/PA)

A Northern Ireland minister who was previously a strident Brexit supporter has apologised for his former “ferocious” stance on negotiations with the EU.

Steve Baker, previously a member of the pro-Brexit European Research Group of MPs, told the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham that relations with Ireland were not “where they should be” and added that ministers needed to act with “humility” to restore relationships with the Republic and the EU.

Wycombe MP Mr Baker told the conference: “The thing I want to add, as one of the people who perhaps acted with the most ferocious determination to get the UK out of the EU: I think we have to bring some humility to this situation.

“It is with humility that I want to accept and acknowledge that I 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, legitimate interests that we are willing to respect.

“Because they do and we are willing to respect them, and I am sorry about that, because relations with Ireland are not where they should be and we all need to work extremely hard to improve that and I know that we are doing so.”

His boss, Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris, said he had “learnt a lot in the last few years” about the intricate links between the UK and Ireland.

He gave the examples of the common travel area and common energy market between Northern Ireland and the Republic, telling the conference: “What we do independently in the United Kingdom, where we give £400 and other support to consumers of energy, actually can have some effect on the market in Ireland.

“I understand the complications. Maybe we could have understood them a bit better sooner.”

The conciliatory tone from ministers came after Foreign Secretary James Cleverly held his first call with Maros Sefcovic, the European Commission vice president.

Mr Sefcovic described the call as a “good conversation”, and said negotiating teams are due to meet soon amid a row over post-Brexit arrangements in Northern Ireland.

Ireland’s Europe minister Thomas Byrne welcomed the comments from Mr Baker and Mr Heaton-Harris.

“There is an opportunity now to find agreed solutions around protocol implementation,” he said.

“It’s important we now move into real engagement between EU and UK teams, to arrive at solutions.”