Steve Baker – arch Brexiter and one of the Conservative party’s fiercest campaigners to get the UK out of the EU – has apologised to Ireland and Brussels for the way he and some of his colleagues behaved over the past six years.
Baker told the Tory party conference that he and others in the party had not shown respect to the “legitimate interests” of Ireland or the EU during the campaign to leave the bloc.
The Northern Ireland minister said it was time to rebuild the UK’s relations with Ireland and make sure the two countries went forward as “closest partners and friends”.
“I was one 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,” said the former chair of the European Research Group (ERG) of Brexit hardliners.
“And it’s 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’re 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 will need to work extremely hard to improve them and I know that we are doing so,” he said.
The transformation into Baker, the peacemaker, will astound many among the Conservatives, and others in the UK, Ireland and the EU who watched the ERG attempts to finalise Brexit under Theresa May’s government.
Lord Gavin Barwell, May’s former chief of staff tweeted Baker’s apology was “long overdue but no less welcome for that”.
The ERG blocked May’s attempt to reach a UK-wide solution to the Irish border question, dubbed the “backstop”, but backed Boris Johnson’s protocol which left a border down the Irish sea.
It would later admit it did that to get Brexit over the line and on the basis that it could renegotiate it at a later date.
Baker’s words suggest that Liz Truss has relegated the row over the Northern Ireland protocol and perhaps was rowing back on her threat to bring in new laws to unilaterally tear up part of the withdrawal agreement.
He was speaking on stage alongside the new Northern Ireland secretary Christopher Heaton-Harris who said talks between the EU and the UK had re-opened last Friday “with gusto”.
Earlier on Sunday Ireland’s taoiseach, Micheál Martin, said he detected a genuine wish from Truss to resolve the impasse over the Northern Ireland protocol after an intense round of diplomacy over the past few weeks.
Baker said the death of the Queen, who had played a significant role in the reconciliation between Ireland and the UK, had been a reminder of how important harmonious relations with the neighbouring countries were.
“The demise of our late Majesty gave us the opportunity to meet leading Irish figures and I said to some of them, ‘I am sorry we did not always respect your legitimate interests.’”
“That combination of humility and resolve and that willingness to build up relations and say, actually, yes, we do want to be Ireland’s closest friends and partners as we all respect … the Belfast Good Friday agreement,” said Baker.
But he said that the EU and Ireland should not underestimate the UK’s determination to get rid of the trade barriers that had been erected on goods going between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
“The counterpoint of that [humility] is resolve. No one should underestimate our resolve, this government’s resolve, to get progress on the protocol.”