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Joe Biden's Election Means Boris Johnson Is Running Out of Options On Northern Ireland And The Internal Market BIll

Joe Biden's Election Means Boris Johnson Is Running Out of Options On Northern Ireland And The Internal Market BIll

Then-US vice-president Joe Biden prepares to deliver a keynote speech in the grounds of Dublin Castle as part of his six-day visit to Ireland, June 2016 | PA Images

8 min read

The UK government insists its Internal Market Bill does not imperil the Good Friday Agreement. But can it convince the incoming US president and the Irish American lobby? Georgina Bailey reports on the dilemma facing No. 10

"Mr Biden, a quick word for the BBC?”

“The BBC? I’m Irish.” 

It was a joke remark made 11 months before the 2020 US election which saw Joe Biden become President-elect.

Yet it would become a key tenet of his pitch to be president: showcasing his Irish Catholic roots and values, and appealing to 33 million Irish Americans. Now it illustrates what could be a major concern for the UK government: that President-elect Biden, along with fellow Democrats Nancy Pelosi and Richie Neal, the chair of Congress’ powerful Ways and Means Committee, will use their significant clout to attempt to influence the government’s course of action on Brexit and potentially block any US-UK free trade agreement (FTA). 

Biden – who has repeatedly referred to his family roots in Mayo, Louth and Derry, and is known to quote Irish poetry in conversation – has already made several interventions on Brexit negotiations, the UK government’s Internal Market Bill (IMB) and the importance of protecting the Good Friday Agreement, also known as the Belfast Agreement. 

In September, he tweeted:

In October, his deputy political director tweeted a mini-manifesto titled ‘Joe Biden, Irish America and Ireland’, which promised a Biden administration would “support US diplomatic engagement to advance the Northern Ireland peace process, and will ensure there will be no US-UK trade deal if the implementation of Brexit imperils the Good Friday Agreement”. 

The DUP’s Ian Paisley Jr dismisses the interventions as “pure politics” from a man who has never been to Northern Ireland and does “not understand the actual detail”. But Colum Eastwood, the leader of the SLDP, is pleased by Biden’s willingness to speak out. “I’ve met Joe Biden on a number of occasions, he understands Northern Ireland,” Eastwood says. “He was good friends with John Hume. He gets the context of why we need the [Northern Ireland] protocol... It is absolutely clear that Joe Biden is supportive of the Good Friday Agreement and protecting it and he is prepared to do what’s necessary to influence that.”

“It is a rigid certainty, in my judgement, that what [Biden’s] been saying, and Pelosi and others have been saying, is absolutely cast iron,” Simon Hoare, chair of the Northern Ireland Select Committee, says. Any FTA would have to be approved by Congress, where the Irish American lobby has cross-party support – the US’s role in negotiating the Agreement is one of the few universally accredited foreign policy “successes” in the last few decades and a point of pride across the political spectrum. 

Biden’s transition team has reportedly already sent “strong words” to No.10 calling for removal of clauses from the IMB that relate to the Northern Ireland protocol. So far, the government is holding firm. As Raoul Ruparel, a former Brexit advisor to Theresa May, points out: “I don’t think [No.10] think they are breaching the Good Friday Agreement in any way.” However, Matthew O’Toole, another former civil servant working on Brexit and now an SDLP MLA, says the UK government’s interpretation of the Good Friday Agreement is “not very widely shared”. 

Whether Johnson can convince Brussels or Biden of this definition, remains to be seen.

There has to be a border somewhere… Boris Johnson decided that there would be a border in the Irish Sea, and now is trying to get away from that

“There is a reasonable enough argument to say [the IMB] doesn’t violate the Good Friday Agreement as such, but it does attack the spirit of it,” explains Dr Adam Fusco, an academic at the University of York focusing on Northern Ireland. “What’s so radical about the Good Friday Agreement is that it allows people in Northern Ireland to be Irish citizens, essentially, within the territory of the United Kingdom. And that’s not just about, ‘okay, you can feel Irish and you can identify as Irish’, it means that you also have some actual kind of political and legal rights as an Irish citizen within the territory of the UK. I think there’s a feeling that things like the IMB rub up against that idea very, very sharply.”

Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s former chief of staff and a key player in negotiating the Agreement, explains: “There has to be a border somewhere… Boris Johnson decided that there would be a border in the Irish Sea, and now is trying to get away from that, and the risk of doing this is you reopen [the issue of] the border between North and South, which would completely undermine the Good Friday Agreement.”

Hoare agrees that the Internal Market Bill “probably inadvertently” does risk the Good Friday Agreement, simply because, if many people feel it is under threat, then that creates a “sort of self-fulfilling prophecy”. 

Many also believe that a hard border down the Irish Sea would also be a risk to the Good Friday Agreement. Such a scenario could be caused by the Northern Ireland protocol as it stands coming into effect if there is no UK-EU trade deal at the end of the transition period, or by a hypothetical trade deal with the US which excluded Northern Ireland, and lead to further regulatory divergence. However, this argument, central to the government’s logic, does not hold much sway across the Atlantic, partly due to the nationalist bent of the Irish American lobby and partly due to the reality of where the threats of violence in Northern Ireland lie. 

They’re not going to get a deal ratified with the EU unless those clauses are removed and they certainly won’t get a trade deal with the US unless those clauses are removed

No.10 now appears to have three options: either go up against the Irish American lobby to persuade Biden that the IMB is not a threat to the Good Friday Agreement; hope that Biden is posturing over the impact on a trade deal with the US; or secure a deal with the EU that nullifies the need for the offending clauses. 

“I think the UK government’s position with the Bill is not tenable, it’s not sustainable,” says Stephen Farry, leader of the Alliance Party. “They’re not going to get a deal ratified with the EU unless those clauses are removed and they certainly won’t get a trade deal with the US unless those clauses are removed.” 

And while Ruparel agrees with the government that their current course of action doesn’t risk the Good Friday Agreement, he believes that “if we’re already down that path [where the Good Friday Agreement would be breached], then what the US then says about it makes very little difference”. “If something’s gone so badly wrong in the UK-EU negotiations the UK feel the only path they can take involves a breach of the Good Friday Agreement, that’s such a big deal that the US withholding a free trade agreement pales in comparison to that,” he says. 

To those that believe that the US and UK’s strategic alignments on other areas of foreign and defence policy might be enough for Biden to overlook the IMB’s clauses and their impact, Powell dismisses that as a “delusion”.

“Of course the US will have relations with the UK, and the intelligence, defence and other relationships go back a long way. But as someone who campaigned against a visa for Gerry Adams at the British Embassy before the IRA ceasefire, I thought I had the American establishment lined up – the CIA to the Justice Department to the State Department, everyone was in favour of Adams being denied a visa. Only to discover that Bill Clinton gave a visa to Gerry Adams under lobbying from Irish Americans in the US Senate,” he explains. “Irish American interests will have a major impact on American administration attitudes, and it will not be outweighed by concerns about Britain as an ally, because we will be a firm ally regardless of what the US does on the trade agreement.” 

There is also reason for Biden to be careful his own administration when negotiating a UK-US deal.

“Because Northern Ireland is both British and Irish, because it’s such a complex, messy place in that regard, you’re always going to have to have to compromise,” explains Professor Katy Hayward of Queen’s University Belfast. 

“You’ve seen in the UK-Japan FTA, there’s recognition of the possibility of there being inconsistency... The question is, if there is a point of inconsistency, where will the UK land? … Will it be willing to make those lesser FTAs or will it be willing to compromise in certain ways that won’t be what it would have wanted in order to protect of Northern Ireland and the protocol, or will it just slightly loosen the ties with Northern Ireland and allow Northern Ireland to be in an increasingly distinct place, which only increases anxieties of unionists and the pressure. I think the US-UK FTA is going to be a really good example of those kind of challenges.”

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