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Self-styled ‘Brexit hard man’ goes soft, apologizes to Ireland live on air

DUBLIN – Hard-line Brexit advocate Steve Baker apologized live on Irish airwaves Monday for what he conceded had been a ham-fisted advocacy of anti-EU policies that disrespected Ireland’s own economic needs.

Baker’s newfound contrition follows his appointment as the second-most senior minister in Britain’s Northern Ireland Office alongside his fellow European Research Group ally, Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris.

Both Brexiteers now emphasize the need to repair London-Dublin relations that were key to achieving Northern Ireland’s 1998 peace accord but have been ravaged by Brexit and, particularly, the U.K. government’s decision to exit the EU single market.

Baker, who once described himself as a “Brexit hard man,” said he was “happy to eat a bit of humble pie” if it helped kickstart new U.K.-EU negotiations on reaching a compromise agreement on making Northern Ireland’s trade protocol work.

In Dublin, Irish Prime Minister Micheál Martin called Baker’s message conciliatory and useful. “I welcome not just his comments, but the tone of his comments. I think they were honest and very, very helpful,” Martin told reporters.

The protocol, part of the 2019 Withdrawal Agreement, requires EU checks on British goods arriving at Northern Irish ports, rather than when crossing the north’s land border with the Republic of Ireland, an EU member. The U.K. has unilaterally postponed many of those checks since their expected 2021 rollout.

Separately, European Commission and Downing Street officials confirmed Monday that technical talks with the U.K. on the protocol dispute would resume this week for the first time since February.

Baker went on RTÉ radio following his initial eyebrow-raising statement of apology Sunday at a Conservative Party conference fringe event to explain his Brexit regrets.

“I recognize in my own determination and struggle to get the U.K. out of the European Union that I caused a great deal of inconvenience and pain and difficulty,” Baker said. “Some of our actions were not very respectful of Ireland’s legitimate interests. And I want to put that right.”

“I am sorry that relations between the United Kingdom and Ireland have been soured by the Brexit process,” he said by telephone from the Tory conference in Birmingham.

Baker recalled his chairmanship of the 28-member European Research Group voting bloc in 2018 that torpedoed then-Prime Minister Theresa May’s efforts to keep the entire U.K. within the EU customs union.

May’s formula would have avoided years of subsequent U.K.-EU conflict over how to maintain an open trade border between Northern Ireland, part of the U.K, and the Republic of Ireland, an EU member, in line with decades of all-Ireland trade underpinned by the Good Friday Agreement.

“I recognize that as the leader of the 28, if I can put it in those terms, who rejected Theresa May’s deal three times, that caused enormous amounts of anxiety,” he said. “And I recognize also that businesses in Northern Ireland have faced a lot of cost and uncertainty through this process. These are things that I want to see put right.”

Yet Baker wasn’t prepared to suggest that, with hindsight, it had been wrong to push for such a hard Brexit for Britain at the cost of leaving Northern Ireland within the EU’s single market for goods. That condition, opposed by most of the region’s British unionists, has kept trade between both parts of Ireland barrier-free.

When asked, Baker said he still wouldn’t support May’s compromise approach for party-political reasons.

“It would have destroyed the Conservative Party and led to an extreme hard-left government,” he said, referring to then-Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. “It would have been a total disaster.”

But Baker stressed the need “to de-escalate these tensions over the protocol” and described the U.K. government’s Northern Ireland Protocol Bill – which the EU warns could trigger a trade war if enacted – as more of a U.K. wish list than bottom line.

“I really don’t want to overplay the bill. We know what we want, we’ve written it down … and anyone can see what we’d like to achieve,” he said.

When asked what compromises the U.K. was willing to make on protocol rules enforcement, Baker said this must be negotiated in tandem with Brussels.

“I’m absolutely not going to do the legislation negotiation live on air. That would be a grave mistake. What we need to do is get into a negotiating tunnel with the EU in a spirit of goodwill,” Baker said.

“I’m not going to talk about preconditions; I’m not going to talk about red lines; I’m not going to talk about compromises. We need to be very, very practical, move this conversation forward, and come up with a deal that works for everyone.”

In London, an official spokesman for Prime Minister Liz Truss said Baker “does speak for the government.”

“We absolutely want to find a negotiated solution to deal with the issues of the protocol and work with our neighbors in the Republic of Ireland,” the spokesman said.

However, Business Secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg doubled down on the need to scrap all checks between Great Britain and Northern Ireland during a fringe event held on the margins of the Tory conference.

He triggered applause from Conservative members in the audience when he said: “We need to be able to trade as a single United Kingdom.”

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