The annual Press and Political Reception at the Irish embassy in Belgravia is a hot ticket on London’s Irish scene in the run up to St Patrick’s Day. It is where those who float high in the Westminster bubble prefer to drown the shamrock. From Tory Lords to the Labour hordes, government spinners to political sinners: this is the party where they like to be seen and green.
This year’s bash, which was hosted last Wednesday, amid the chaos of a Tube strike, by Irish ambassador Martin Fraser, had the air of a make-up party. Not the type where partygoers swap eyeshadow and foundation. It was the kind of make-up party where quarrelling, erstwhile friends patch up their ills over a pint.
We didn’t mean all those things we said about you, the friends will say. We lost our temper in the heat of the moment. That’s not how we really feel about you. It was just the Brexit talking.
Fraser took over as ambassador only last November, although he was a combatant for much of the Brexit farrago as secretary general of the Department of Taoiseach. Last Wednesday he was ever the diplomat. Fraser gave a conciliatory speech in which he likened the Brexit falling out between Ireland and Britain to a family row.
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“When the row is over, you’d be surprised at just how quickly the family can get back together,” he said. Glasses clinked and former foes winked. Fraser captured the mood of the evening.
He suggested many people had played significant roles in the unfurling of the Great Frown that each side had directed at the other since the vote in 2016. Too many people to name, he said. He went on, however, to make one exception. “The minister of state at the Northern Ireland Office,” said Fraser, pointing at Steve Baker.
An unlikely candidate to be the British government’s Irish whisperer, Baker was formerly the chairman of the European Research Group of hardline Tory backbenchers. He spent years riling up the Irish government. Even the usually-measured SDLP at the time decried Baker’s “obnoxious” appointment to the Northern Ireland Office last September by short-lived British premier, Liz Truss.
Yet it may have been her masterstroke. Irish government officials still talk of how utterly stunned they were at last October’s Conservative Party conference in Birmingham when Baker, hitherto a self-styled “Brexit hardman”, took to the main stage to say sorry to Ireland for his past behaviour.
It genuinely was a turning point in the Brexit negotiations, government officials admit. Baker’s Birmingham intervention, whether it was truly humble or not, transformed the atmosphere and prefaced a thaw in the once-frozen discussions that eventually led to the Windsor Framework deal.
Some Irish officials say they still do not know why he did it.
Here is what happened. Baker, a former engineer in the Royal Air Force, is known to be a student of certain military and political strategy books. He calculated that a dramatic strategic intervention was required to shake up the moribund talks and pivot them in a more fruitful direction.
It was his idea to use an unexpected apology to Ireland to achieve this strategic objective of resetting negotiations. He cleared it beforehand with only his immediate ministerial boss, Northern Ireland secretary Chris Heaton-Harris. Nobody else in the British government knew what he planned.
A stream of senior officials in the foreign office and Number 10 Downing Street are said to have gone berserk in the aftermath of Baker’s apology. Baker told the officials that if the prime minister, who was still Truss at that time, or her foreign secretary James Cleverly had a problem with what he had done, they should ring him directly.
The call never came. Sunak left Baker, Cleverly and Heaton-Harris in their roles when he took over from Truss. Here we are six months later with a Brexit deal done, and unlikely to be derailed even by the foot-dragging this week of the Democratic Unionist Party.
Last Thursday, the day after the Press and Political Reception, Baker was at yet another St Patrick’s event in London. He was, again, lauded for his role in the Northern Ireland deal, this time from the lectern at the Champ peace promotion group’s gathering on the terrace in Westminster Palace.
The one-time Brexit hardman smiled softly and took it all in. He represents the Remain constituency of Wycombe and, so, one suspects his Brexit battles are not yet over. The next general election could be difficult for him but being feted now as a dealmaker might help. Baker isn’t shy of self belief.
For now, he seems content to revel in his new-found status as the unlikeliest doyen of British-Irish relations. It’s a funny old world. But the Irish side seem happy to take it.