Republic of Ireland news

Heaton-Harris and Steve Baker not in attendance at ERG meeting with DUP

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson (Liam McBurney/PA)
David Young and Jonathan McCambridge, PA

Former ERG chairs and current Northern Ireland Office colleagues Chris Heaton-Harris and Steve Baker have said they did not attend this week's meeting of the Eurosceptic Tory MPs and the DUP.

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson held talks with Conservative members of the European Research Group in London on Tuesday.

The discussions came as the DUP seeks to shore up support for its opposition to Brexit's Northern Ireland Protocol amid mounting speculation the Government is moving towards striking a deal with the EU on the contentious post-Brexit trading arrangements.

The DUP is blocking the functioning of powersharing in Northern Ireland in protest at the protocol and says it will only countenance a return to Stormont if the economic barriers on trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland are scrapped.

A compromise deal between London and Brussels could fall short of what the DUP is demanding and the party is keen to secure the support of Tory Eurosceptics to avoid being isolated if London and Brussels serve up a deal that it opposes.

Northern Ireland Secretary Mr Heaton-Harris and NIO minister Steve Baker were previously leading figures in the ERG through the Brexit process.

Since becoming ministers in Government, they have been involved in efforts to thaw relations with the EU, and in particular the Irish government.

Both Conservative politicians joined ministerial counterparts from Ireland at a meeting of the British Irish Intergovermental Conference in Dublin on Thursday.

Afterwards they were asked whether they attended the meeting between the ERG and DUP.

Mr Baker replied: “I was not at that meeting no, but I do see Jeffery often and I see my great friends in ERG often, but I was not at that meeting.”

Mr Heaton-Harris added: “I'm afraid I wasn't either.”

He then joked: “Not flipping invited again.”

Later, Mr Baker spoke in warm terms about improving relations with the Irish government as he described Thursday's engagement as a “great success”.

“We've met together in a spirit of goodwill and authentic cooperation,” he said.

Mr Baker said the UK/Irish link-up was a “fundamental relationship”.

“Actually, I'm very proud that two former ERG chairmen have been part of completely transforming… this relationship,” he said.

“And I'm pleased because we're now on a positive trajectory together, and we're going to work together.

“We're always going to face problems, but we're going to face those problems together and rise to them. And I'm very pleased and proud of our work today and the work that's brought us to this point.”

He added: “I very much hope we'll bring the DUP and Eurosceptic MPs to the same positive place in our relations with Ireland”.