When Steve Baker visited the offices of an organisation representing 6,000 business owners in Northern Ireland last week, members found him disarming.
“He comes into most places with a reputation as being the hard man of Brexit and now that he’s a minister of state for Northern Ireland, I think he recognises maybe that reputation is unhelpful to him to a certain extent,” said Roger Pollen, head of the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB). “It’s something people have to get past.”
Mr Pollen attended that meeting in Belfast and believes the apology given by Mr Baker on Sunday for failing to understand the Irish Government’s concerns during the Brexit negotiations was “absolutely genuine”.
“At the Tory Party fringe event he very quickly communicated the same thing he had to us: ‘whatever you thought of me before, whatever preconceptions you may have had, I recognise what I have done may have been insensitive and abrasive. Let’s set that aside now’,” Mr Pollen said. “I must say he was very disarming and I think all the business owners that were there felt that too.”
A staunch Brexiteer and former chair of the European Research Group, Mr Baker’s olive branch at the Conservative Party conference — he revealed he had apologised in person to leading Irish figures — was dismissed by the DUP.
With just over three weeks until the October 28th deadline set by the UK government for Stormont’s restoration, after which time the Northern Secretary is legally obliged to order an election, one Irish Government source said it “wasn’t just about saying things but doing things”.
“The read out on Steve Baker is that he is that rare Tory politician who is both interested in and seems to understand the North,” he added.
‘We’re now on October 3rd, that’s 25 days away from the October 28th deadline. That’s not many working days to conduct a negotiation’
“What he said on Sunday belongs to a pattern of statements coming from Tory ministers going back to late August. So it doesn’t surprise me. I’m optimistic that at the very least they sit down for the first time really this year and agree on what needs to be done. But the timeline is very tight to get Stormont back — and will the package be enough to get the DUP back in?”
The North has been without a functioning government since May’s Assembly election as the DUP continues to boycott its formation until its concerns about the protocol are dealt with.
Another Irish government source said Mr Baker’s intervention was among the “positive signals” witnessed in the past fortnight, referencing the meeting between Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney and Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Chris Heaton-Harris last week, as well as the talks between British foreign secretary James Cleverly and the EU’s chief negotiator Maroš Šefčovič:
“It’s good that we’re seeing positive indications ... But we need to see what happens, it’s the beginning but there is a long road to go.”
The European Commission on Monday confirmed that EU and UK officials will this week resume talks on how to resolve the protocol standoff.
For Mr Pollen, there is a “big chunk” of his members — between them they own 10,000 to 15,000 firms making it the North’s biggest business organisation — for whom the post-Brexit trade deal is working well.
“There’s also ones unaffected by it, the ones unaware of it (that’s usually because someone else is taking the pain), the ones protected by the grace period, and then the ones who are badly affected by it,” he added. “We’ve done a mapping piece on that final group — there’s been a wider and increasing recognition of them.”
While the mood music is “really encouraging”, there is a real urgency to resolve the political deadlock, adds Mr Pollen.
“We’re now on October 3rd, that’s 25 days away from the October 28th deadline. That’s not many working days to conduct a negotiation that could move you to the point where there is sufficient progress to say ‘yes, we’ve now got a workable deal’.
“The question is — what will the UK government need to see to say it’s not calling an election in Northern Ireland?”