No change at NIO despite lack of progress on Irish Sea Border issues or Stormont return

Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris survives the cabinet reshuffle.Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris survives the cabinet reshuffle.
Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris survives the cabinet reshuffle.
In a reshuffle which saw the Home Secretary sacked and a former Prime Minister back in high office, there was no change at the NIO despite the failure to restart Stormont or deal with unionist concerns about the Irish Sea border.

The Northern Ireland Office have confirmed that The Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris and the Minister of State Steve Baker will both remain in post after Rishi Sunak reshuffled his cabinet.

Heaton-Harris was once a strong supporter of Boris Johnson – and a member of the hard-line European Research Group within the Tory party - before taking the reins at the NIO. Since then, Chris Heaton-Harris has been a champion of the Windsor Framework, but in recent months has seemingly made little progress in persuading the DUP to return to government at Stormont.

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When the Windsor deal was announced, Heaton-Harris said that “England, Scotland and Wales have been living free from EU rule, benefiting from increased trade with countries around the world and taking back control of our laws and borders.” He argued that the Windsor Framework eliminated “any sense of a border in the Irish sea” – despite the continuation of customs declarations, ongoing checks on many goods and the fact Northern Ireland still follows EU trade regulations.

The NIO under Heaton-Harris has largely marked time since the Windsor framework was signed. It has tried to avoid taking any decisions which could be taken by a functioning executive. Heaton-Harris has made made minimal interventions, such as setting a budget earlier this year. However he left many “difficult decisions” on exactly how that money was allocated – and where savings could be made – to unelected civil servants at Stormont.

Another former ERG member – Steve Baker – remains as NIO minister. Previously a Brexit minister under Theresa May, he quit over her Chequers proposals and was seen as a firebrand Brexiteer. Baker’s pro-Brexit reputation was so strong that his appointment was branded “an obnoxious decision” by the SDLP MP Claire Hanna.

However he is now a strong advocate for the Windsor Framework and apologised to Ireland for the UK’s behaviour during Brexit negotiations.

Whether continuity at the NIO tells us anything about whether a deal with the DUP to restore government is likely soon, remains to be seen.