Just hours after EU officials exerted pressure on the incoming Prime Minister over Ulster’s post-Brexit Protocol, Chris Heaton-Harris was named Liz Truss Northern Ireland Secretary.
On social media late Friday night, Mr Heaton-Harris was introduced as Ms Truss first Cabinet Secretary for a devolved nation. The 54-year-old will take over for Shailesh Vara, who held the position during Boris Johnson’s closing days in Downing Street for only 62 days. The Daventry MP who supports Brexit, served as the ERG’s chairman from 2010 to 2016 and has previously referred to himself as a “fierce Eurosceptic.”
Mr Heaton-Harris formerly served as a minister in the Foreign Office and the Transport Department. He is also a licenced football referee. He also worked for Theresa May as the Brexit Minister and for Boris Johnson as the Chief Whip.
Mr Heaton-Harris responded to his promotion on social media, he said: “Honoured to be appointed Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.”
“Looking forward to questions in the House tomorrow morning, heading out to NI and getting to work with the Northern Ireland Office.”
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, the Lagan Valley MP and head of the Democratic Unionist Party, complimented Mr Heaton-Harris on his new position.
Sir Jeffrey, who is against the Northern Ireland Protocol and is a supporter of Brexit, said on Twitter: “Congratulations Chris Heaton-Harris on your appointment.”
“[I] look forward to working with you to build a more stable and prosperous future for everyone in Northern Ireland and making the Union work for all our citizens.”
Speaking to BBC News NI, he added: “He was formerly a minister involved in negotiations with the EU about resolving the issues on the Protocol and getting Northern Ireland’s place in the internal market restored.”
“Recently he’s been chief whip, I’ve worked closely with him on the Protocol bill, so he understands the issues that are confronting us at this time and I’m hopeful that as secretary of state he will bring that voice to the cabinet table to get this done, get a solution on the Protocol and then let’s move on.”
Fellow Brexiteer and the head of the Traditional Unionist Voice, Jim Allister, said that Mr Heaton-Harris has taken “the same side in Eurosceptic battles in Brussels.”
He added: “I always found him good to work with. I trust he will play an active part in delivering NI from the iniquitous Protocol.”
Colum Eastwood, the head of the Social Democrats and Labour, however, seemed to be less favorable to Mr Heaton-Harris.
Mr Eastwood, who opposes Brexit and is in favour of talks with the EU to keep the Protocol in place, said: “Chris’ politics are totally different to mine. He’s a very hardline Brexiteer, but I know him, I like him, he seems to be a good enough guy.
“But what we really need now are some grown-ups in the British Government, prepared to properly sit down and negotiate with the European Commission, that’s the only way any of these issues will be resolved.”
Simon Coveney, the foreign minister of Ireland, also urged Mr Heaton-Harris to assist in bringing a “functioning executive” back to Northern Ireland. He stated: “Congratulations to Chris Heaton-Harris for his appointment as new Sec of State for Northern Ireland.”
“I’ve known him since we were both members of the European Parliament and I look forward to working closely with him in the coming months.”
“First job – a functioning executive for Northern Ireland.”
However, officials in Brussels have also put pressure on Ms Truss to respect the Northern Ireland Protocol. Leaders in Brussels have nonetheless pressed Ms Truss to uphold the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, even said that if Britain wants a “constructive relationship” with the EU, it must “respect” its obligations under the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Irish Taoiseach Micheal Martin noted that, “if there is a will,” a “pathway” to settling the issue may be discovered. He also stated that Dublin would cooperate with London and Brussels “to do the practical and sensible thing.”
Ms Truss, who changed her mind on Brexit after previously supporting the UK’s membership in the EU, said that the Protocol was “undermining” the Good Friday Agreement.
The former foreign secretary wrote in July: “Ideally, we would fix these problems through negotiation, but the EU has ruled out changing the text of the protocol.”
“Northern Ireland has been without a fully functioning executive since February because of the protocol, at the time of a cost of living crisis and many other challenges.”
“Therefore it is the duty of this government, as co-signatory and co-guarantor of the agreement, but also as the sovereign government in Northern Ireland, to act.”