The Northern Ireland Office minister Steve Baker has told unionists that the Irish Sea border won’t be changed. Mr Baker has also has been talking about unionist 'hardliners' and claiming that DUP opposition to the 1998 Belfast Agreement is an indicator of some of the party’s current opposition to the Windsor Framework.
The DUP hardliners are a fabled group. The New Decade New Approach deal of 2023, in which the three strands were torn up and an Irish language act agreed, met minimal DUP opposition. And when Edwin Poots was elected leader as a supposed hardliner there was no hint of him taking a hard stand on anything, not even on the Irish Sea border. So there is no evidence for an enduring anti 1998 mindset.
When Mr Baker talks about the inability to satisfy that "hardest line of opinion" (as he put it to Cool FM) he must remember that when he and Chris Heaton-Harris were appointed nationalists and centrists dismissed them as Brexiteer 'hard liners'. Unionists indeed have reason to wonder if their tenure, which has not been hardline in any respect, was made all the softer by NIO efforts to prove wrong such nationalist slurs.
Last year Mr Baker apologised to Dublin for the UK not paying enough respect to its interests after the UK quit the EU, then gave an interview to this newspaper (see link below) saying that respecting the Belfast Agreement “does mean … ending the supremacy of European law [in NI]”. He further said then that as a Brexit Minister in 2018 he "was betrayed" by the Cabinet Office and that this time, with regard to the NI Protocol, the Foreign Office needed to hear the DUP.
That interview looks silly now. The fearless-sounding Mr Baker of 2022, endorsing DUP concerns, is now that party’s scold. The UUP leader Doug Beattie is far too generous when he says that Mr Baker is just speaking honestly about the framework.
Steve Baker 2022 interview: I was betrayed over Brexit and don’t want that to happen again