Heaton-Harris talks up North’s economy but no breakthrough on deal with unionists

Northern Ireland secretary’s conference speech in Manchester irks Irish officials by making no mention of Britain’s relationship with Republic

The UK government says it has begun implementing the first phase of the Windsor Framework trade deal, by streamlining the arrangements for British-based businesses to trade with Northern Ireland.

Chris Heaton-Harris, the Northern Ireland Secretary, also told delegates in his formal address on the opening day of the Conservative Party’s annual conference in Manchester that the UK government is “actively exploring” how to support a new ferry route between Larne in Co Antrim and Liverpool.

Mr Heaton-Harris was the first UK Cabinet member to address delegates from the main stage at the Manchester Central Convention Complex, which is hosting the conference amid heavy security over the next four days. The party expects more than 10,000 delegates to attend.

While Irish Government officials present in the hall seemed unimpressed with Mr Heaton-Harris’s speech, he tried to strike an upbeat tone about the North’s economic future. He acknowledged “concerns remain” in the unionist community over the Windsor Framework deal with the European Union, which has led to a boycott of devolved government in the North by the DUP.


Mr Heaton-Harris is leading the UK government in talks with the DUP to try to revive the Stormont executive. He said ministers will “continue to address” unionists’ concerns, which include how to maintain the North’s frictionless trade with Britain while effectively keeping it part of the EU’s single market for goods.

“The vast majority of Northern Ireland’s economic life is dependent on its connections with the rest of the UK, and that reality will not change,” said Mr Heaton-Harris.

Somewhat bizarrely, he chose to highlight O’Neill’s, the sportswear company that makes jerseys and equipment for the GAA, as an example of a company that was helping the North “contribute to the union”. O’Neill’s has a design centre in Leigh, just west of Manchester.

Mr Heaton-Harris mentioned O’Neill’s, which has a factory in Tyrone but was founded in Dublin over 100 years ago, as a manufacturer of “rugby and football” equipment. He made no mention of its connections to the Republic or to the GAA. Throughout his address, he also made no mention of his ongoing political engagement or relationship with the Republic, irking Irish officials.

“It is absolutely no surprise whatsoever that he made no reference to the Government of Ireland, anywhere in that speech, anywhere at all,” said one senior Irish diplomat.

Mr Heaton-Harris excoriated the Labour Party’s attitude towards the North, which he suggested could put the UK’s union at risk. He said Labour leader Keir Starmer would take a “sledgehammer to the union”.

“We are the only party that will relentlessly advocate for the union. We will never shy away from our support for it,” said Mr Heaton-Harris, who recently implied criticism of the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, for voicing his aspiration for a united Ireland.

He also lauded the British government’s recent passing of legislation to give an amnesty to those, including British army members, being investigated for crimes committed during the Troubles. The Irish Government strongly opposed the passing of the bill, which it said would damage the rights of victims and their families.

Immediately before Mr Heaton-Harris’s speech, delegates first heard an address from Greg Hands, the chairman of the Conservative Party. He tried to reassure delegates that the Tories have a plan for next year’s election and, after 13 years of Conservative government, the party is ready to address the UK’s “profound problems”.

“The best is yet to come,” Mr Hands promised.

Mark Paul

Mark Paul in Manchester

Mark Paul is London Correspondent for The Irish Times