Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern, the architects of the landmark peace deal in Northern Ireland, have been working behind the scenes to try to get the UK and the EU back to the negotiating table over Brexit and the collapse of the Stormont government, it has been revealed.
The revelation comes as it emerged that the hard Brexiter Steve Baker has been appointed a minister in the Northern Ireland office, replacing Conor Burns, who has been moved to a ministerial role in the Department for International Trade.
South Belfast SDLP MP Claire Hanna said the appointment of Baker and fellow Brexiter Chris Heaton-Harris as as Northern Ireland secretary was an “obnoxious” European Research Group “takeover”. She said it raised “serious questions” about Liz Truss’s policy direction.
Earlier on Wednesday, Burns had thanked Blair and Ahern for their support in the House of Commons. He revealed he had spent the summer north and south of the border in dozens of meetings with parties and civic representatives to try to break the double impasse over the Northern Ireland protocol and power-sharing, which the Democratic Unionist party has been boycotting since May.
“I want to place on record, Mr Speaker, in the house today, my thanks to the former taoiseach Bertie Ahern and the former prime minister Tony Blair for their assistance in the work that I have done over the summer,” he said.
Ahern and Blair continue to take a keen interest in Northern Ireland and are determined to make sure the fragile peace accord is not ruptured before the 25th anniversary of the Belfast Good Friday agreement next Easter.
The former taoiseach met Burns in Dublin recently and will meet the European Commission vice-president, Maroš Šefčovič, on Wednesday night on the sidelines of a roundtable discussion about Northern Ireland involving MEPs and representatives from all parties including Sinn Féin and the DUP.
Some have suggested that Ahern should be appointed a special envoy to try to resolve the dispute over the protocol, with warnings that history will not forgive Irish or British leaders if the peace deal collapses.
However, one source said the Irish government had a “neuralgia” about jobs for former politicians in envoy positions.
Talks between the UK and the EU over the Northern Ireland protocol have been paused since February when Russia invaded Ukraine, with the already strained relations deteriorating further in June when Liz Truss introduced a bill to enable the UK to unilaterally remove some of the Northern Ireland Brexit protocol.
Despite the risk of a retaliatory trade war if the bill becomes law, Burns believes there is room for a deal. Earlier this week, he advised Truss that there is an appetite to return to talks and have “another go” at negotiations.
Hopes of a thaw in UK-EU relations have also been fuelled by the absence of Lord Frost from Truss’s new cabinet.
Burns told the house he had met Šefčovič at the British Irish Association conference in Oxford at the weekend where he had “constructive and prolonged talks”.
“I am convinced that if the appetite exists, we can find a way to a negotiated solution to the Northern Ireland protocol,” he told MPs.