At the Waterworks in north Belfast, Conor Burns leads the way.
Once the source of the city’s water supply, it is now a public park where the former reservoirs have become home to flocks of swans; on this late August afternoon, it is full of runners, dog-walkers and children enjoying the last of the summer holidays.
“The main Waterworks is up there, where the bigger expanse of water is,” Burns says, walking towards a steep set of steps which run up the side of an embankment. “This was the adventurous bit, because you were moving further away from home.”
As a child, this was his entire world. The entrance to the park was at the end of his grandmother’s street, and as he indicates the landmarks – the Antrim Road, Cave Hill – he is just as keen to point out the house he grew up in, the primary school he attended and his parish church.
Born in 1972 into a Catholic, nationalist household, he spent the first eight and a half years of his life in north Belfast until his family moved to England – a relocation which was the beginning of an unusual political journey for the “wee fella from the Antrim Road”.
Today Burns is a Conservative MP – representing Bournemouth West – who was a friend of Margaret Thatcher and, more recently, one of Boris Johnson’s staunchest allies; he “happily considers” himself Irish, British and Northern Irish and is a devout Catholic, openly gay, and a “supporter of the Union”.
“Clearly in large part it happened because we left here,” says Burns. “It allowed my political identity to develop outside of the corset of a sectarian identity given to you by accident of birth, which you then felt here obliged to live under.”
‘I have an emotional, instinctive understanding of this place because I’m from here. I’ve lived it, I’ve breathed it, my family are here’
Since last year he has been the Minister of State for Northern Ireland and the UK prime minister’s special representative to the US on the Northern Ireland protocol; he is only the second minister in the 50-year history of the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) to be from Northern Ireland.
It means, he says, “I sort of understand – with the big caveat that, as John Hume used to say, anyone who tells you they understand Northern Ireland is proving to you that they don’t. I have an emotional, instinctive understanding of this place because I’m from here. I’ve lived it, I’ve breathed it, my family are here,” he says. “This is one of the places I would count as home.”
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Since his appointment he has made no secret of his delight at being back in Northern Ireland and – contrary to the criticism often made of ministers appointed to the Northern brief, that they fly in and fly out again almost as quickly – has won praise for the amount of time he has spent in the North.
Yet two years earlier, he had turned the post down; it was “not that I didn’t want to do it, it’s that I was concerned I would end up caring too much, that it would become for me not just a job, but a vocation, and it has in a very powerful way turned out that way”.
It is clear his connection to Belfast, forged in childhood, remains a visceral one; when he watched the film Belfast – based on director Kenneth Branagh’s own memories of leaving the city as a child – Burns admits he cried.
The family left in 1980 for a small village in Hertfordshire, though Burns returned as often as he could, spending Easter holidays in north Belfast with his grandmother and summers at his grandfather’s house in Ballycastle.
His memories of the Troubles are of British army patrol checkpoints, bomb scares. A few months after they moved to England, he told his mother he didn’t feel safe there because there were no soldiers, and “the police don’t have guns”.
Had he stayed, he does not believe he would have become a politician; he also believes he would have “probably struggled, certainly [back] then, more with becoming public about my sexuality had I still been here”.
“I suppose I had the opportunity, having left here at a relatively young age, of growing up in an environment where politics was about economics and wellbeing and what sort of society you wanted to create, economically and socially, not driven by constitutional identity or sectarian division.”
This, he says, is something which appeals to many young people he has met in Northern Ireland today, who feel “they are having an identity that is imposed upon them because of where they were born, the community into which they were born, but an identity that they didn’t consciously choose”.
Recently, he described himself in the Commons as someone who was “very deeply accountable to family members across kitchen tables in Northern Ireland”; he recalls his childhood home as a place of debate – “intensely political, but it wasn’t party political”.
In the wider family, says Burns, many “would be advocates for a united Ireland, many others would, probably for a variety of reasons – economic, the NHS – would probably on balance support the continuity of Northern Ireland’s position within the UK”.
His own conviction is that “Northern Ireland’s place is best served inside the United Kingdom… I just think economically, socially, it is advantageous to Northern Ireland. Not just economically, because you mustn’t ever take something as precious as the union down to pounds, shillings and pence, it’s much more sentimental, emotional, deep than that.
“This place is different in so many ways to the Republic of Ireland, it has its own identity, and that identity is in a large measure shaped by being part of the United Kingdom.”
This political stance has cost him relationships: “I’ve got some members of family who have made it clear via folks, my parents, that you know, political differences are too great. Well, there it is.
“I’m still Conor, I’m still the wee fella from the Antrim Road, I’m still the grandson of my beloved granny, I’m still the nephew that my uncle and aunts knew growing up.”
Burns has had a busy summer, much of it spent in Northern Ireland. A defender of Boris Johnson – it was he who uttered the phrase “ambushed by a cake” during an interview over Partygate – he did not quit during the crisis which saw the outgoing prime minister eventually tender his resignation because “I felt there needed to be a degree of continuity in the NIO”.
‘It needs to be fixed’
As autumn approaches, there is certainly plenty on his in-tray; not least the dispute over the Northern Ireland protocol which has seen the UK introduce a bill to allow it to disapply parts of the agreement unilaterally, and the absence of the North’s powersharing government due to the DUP’s refusal to go back into Stormont until the issues around the protocol are resolved to its satisfaction.
Burns is keen to detach the two: “The DUP should be back in government now. The protocol is a foreign-policy negotiation… between the government of the United Kingdom and the European Commission, with clearly more than a small measure of vested interest on the part of the Irish government.
“We will sort the protocol regardless of whether the DUP are in government or not, because it needs to be fixed, it needs to get on a sustainable, cross-community platform of support.”
Regarding the protocol, he believes there is now a window where it can be solved before the Bill comes back to the House of Lords in the autumn. “If we seize it, if we want to, if there’s flexibility, if there’s goodwill, if there’s a preparedness to push the reset button, there is, I think, an opportunity to sit down and talk.”
He is working on a project for the UK Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, to get “out and about scoping the potential to see whether there is appetite in having another go with the [European] Commission at finding whether we can build on things we agree on to find the negotiated outcome that both sides say they want”.
‘There remains an acute determination on the part of the UK government and both the contenders for the Conservative Party leadership – one of whom will be prime minister shortly – that we resolve this by negotiation’
In the coming days, he is due in Dublin: “I want to try and see if we can create the opportunity for a new prime minister to see if they can resolve the protocol by conversation with the Irish and with the EU,” he says.
“This may surprise some in Ireland, but there remains an acute determination on the part of the UK government and both the contenders for the Conservative Party leadership – one of whom will be prime minister shortly – that we resolve this by negotiation.
“I’ve always believed that this is eminently doable, and it’s eminently doable if there is goodwill and flexibility to recognise the – this word is often overused – the unique situation of this island.”
What will be key in the future, says Burns, is the rebuilding of relationships between Dublin and London.
“There is no doubt that Brexit and the aftermath of Brexit has been the political equivalent of a heart attack in the relationship between the United Kingdom and Ireland, and I am a passionate believer that we have got to find a way to reset, recalibrate that relationship in the post-Brexit environment.
“The reality was that when we were both members of the European Union, ministers from Ireland and the UK saw each other frequently at Council of Ministers meetings. That regular pattern, that drumbeat of interaction, has been fractured… it would be my passionate wish that we get back to a much more regular pattern of interaction and exchange.”
The Taoiseach, he says, is “a pragmatist and a dealmaker… to use a well-used phrase, a man with whom we can do business.”
Whether it will be Liz Truss or Rishi Sunak in charge in London come September 5th remains to be seen; Burns has declined to back either candidate publicly and instead emphasises that his focus is solving the protocol.
He also declines to be drawn on whether he would like the position of secretary of state for Northern Ireland in the reshuffle, which will presumably follow; the current Northern Secretary, Shailesh Vara, was appointed in June following the resignation of Brandon Lewis.
“I enjoy being in government, I enjoy the opportunity that allows me to make a difference and to help shape, to some small degree, events.
“Would I like to carry on in government? Absolutely. What, if anything, the incoming prime minister asks me to do will be a matter for them.”
The Irish Times puts it to him that surely this is a job he would love. “I love being in Northern Ireland,” is his diplomatic answer. “There is a major piece of work to be done,” he says, in rebuilding trust. “Would I like to play a role in continuing to do that between the British and Irish Governments? Would I like to continue to contribute here in Northern Ireland? Yeah, of course I would.”
He also refuses to elaborate on a potential border poll, emphasising that the obligations on the secretary of state of the day are “laid down very clearly in the Belfast Good Friday Agreement. It’s one area that I don’t think it’s constructive for a serving government to seek to have a running commentary.”
‘I think sometimes, for all the challenges of the protocol and so on, imagine if David Trimble and John Hume had said, you know what? This is all too difficult’
As we leave the park, Burns talks of how much has changed and how much remains to be done; while the consistent hum of helicopters hovering overhead that he remembers from childhood is gone, there remains nevertheless an armoured police Land Rover on duty.
Burns tells of the “privilege” of a conversation with David Trimble before he died last month. “I think sometimes, for all the challenges of the protocol and so on, imagine if David Trimble and John Hume had said, you know what? This is all too difficult.
“But they fought and fought and fought and when they wanted to give up, they went away and regrouped and they carried on.
“We’ve got to fix this. We’ve got to fix this protocol. We’ve got to fix the relationships between our two governments on these islands.
“We’ve got to get devolved government back up and running in the interest of the people of this place, and I don’t want to give up. It’s too important. I mean, what’s the alternative? What’s the alternative?”