By Martina Betteto and Jonathan McCambridge, PA
The fear of Sinn Féin is an obstacle to the normalisation of politics in Northern Ireland, a Northern Ireland Office minister has said.
Steve Baker told a reception hosted by the Northern Ireland Conservatives at the Tory party conference in Birmingham that he had an extraordinary reaction when knocking doors in east Belfast.
He said that people were thrilled to have a Conservative MP visit, but one woman told him she would not entertain voting for his party because she did not want to “let Sinn Féin in”.
The republican party displaced the DUP to become the overall largest party in Northern Ireland for the first time in this year’s Stormont Assembly elections. The DUP remains the largest unionist party in the region.
Mr Baker told the reception on Tuesday night: “One of the things I confess I would like to do, notwithstanding my great friendship with DUP MPs, is normalise politics in Northern Ireland.
“So, I want to tell you just a little story. I went over to visit my friends in east Belfast, and we went knocking on doors, and what an extraordinary reaction.
“’My name is Steve Baker, I’m the Conservative MP for Wickham, just came around to introduce myself and what you thought about voting Conservative’.
“I’ve never had such a reaction on the doorstep.
“People were so thrilled to meet a Conservative MP and have the thought of normalisation and representation, possibly even in the Government in Westminster.
“I asked one lady in particular, ‘so do you think you might vote Conservative?’ ‘Oh, well, no, I can’t let Sinn Féin in’.
“What a terrible, sad thing we’ve got to that the obstacle to normalising politics is fear of Sinn Féin.”
On Sunday, Mr Baker, a former strident Brexiteer and member of the pro-Brexit European Research Group of MPs, apologised over his “ferocious” stance on negotiations with the EU.
He told the conference in Birmingham that relations with Ireland are not “where they should be” and added that ministers need to act with “humility” to restore relationships with the Republic and the EU.
The Stormont political institutions are currently dormant because of the DUP’s protest against the post-Brexit Northern Ireland Protocol.