Heaton-Harris: My understanding of unionism is at ‘GCSE level’

Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris has admitted he is still learning about unionism.

He said he was at “GCSE level” in his understanding of the unionist tradition in Northern Irish politics.

The Cabinet minister was speaking alongside Democratic Unionist Party leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson following the publication of a deal aimed at restoring powersharing in Northern Ireland.

Mr Heaton-Harris said the wrangling with the DUP had sometimes been “frustrating”.

At a joint press conference in Belfast with Sir Jeffrey, Mr Heaton-Harris said he could understand the DUP’s concerns about the post-Brexit trading arrangements, which critics have blamed for effectively creating a trade barrier in the Irish Sea between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

“It’s been a long process and at times – forgive me Jeffrey – it has been frustrating,” Mr Heaton-Harris said.

“Sir Jeffrey is actually quite a tenacious negotiator and he is a man of principle, he knows exactly what he stands for.

“To be quite frank, I could understand the points he was making.

Stormont Assembly
Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris and DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson during the joint press conference (Niall Carson/PA)

“I’m a keen Brexiteer, I want the whole of my country to see the benefits of leaving the European Union, something we did four years ago today.

“But also I probably needed some extra explanation about unionism in Northern Ireland. I’ve had a decent education, I’m probably on GCSE level at this point but I’m sure it will continue until I get my masters.”

He said the deal reached with the DUP demonstrates a commitment to the union and the people of Northern Ireland.

Mr Heaton-Harris is not the first Northern Ireland secretary who has admitted to difficulties grappling with the complexity of the politics there.

In 2018, then Northern Ireland secretary Karen Bradley said: “I didn’t understand things like when elections are fought for example in Northern Ireland – people who are nationalists don’t vote for unionist parties and vice-versa.”