Northern Ireland Protocol: US-UK Standpoint

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Political Observation - Spasmodic US-UK Standpoint  on the Northern Ireland Protocol

Following strenuous negotiations with the European Union (EU) that lasted three years and led to the resignation of two UK Prime Ministers, Boris Johnson boasted back then “we’ve taken back control of our laws and our destiny”, in reference to the agreement with the EU on Brexit. However, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), a conservative protestant rightwing movement established in 1971 in Northern Ireland, and considered to be an arch- enemy of Irish nationalism and supporter of the UK and Brexit, vehemently opposed a fundamental point in the agreement known as the “Northern Ireland Protocol” which is pertinent to the relationship between Northern Ireland and the EU, stating that, “These proposals are not, in our view, beneficial to the economic wellbeing of Northern Ireland and they undermine the integrity of the Union”, in reference to the British Union which includes England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, adding that “this is not acceptable within the internal borders of the United Kingdom”. Therefore, the DUP withdrew its cooperation with the Conservatives in the House of Commons and thwarted Johnson’s efforts to ratify the agreement in October 2019; this compelled Johnson to call for a snap election in which he won an overwhelming majority under the theme of, “get Brexit done”, and subsequently succeeded in ratifying the agreement and executing Brexit in 2020.

As for the Northern Ireland Protocol, it stipulates keeping the province within the EU’s single market and deeming Northern Ireland a point of entry into the EU, which requires establishing customs borders with the rest of the British provinces, and thus Northern Ireland would be subjected to the customs system of the EU, knowing that the Northern Ireland Assembly would reserve the right to vote on the Protocol every four years. The need for this protocol hinges on the requirement to maintain the international agreement known as the Belfast Agreement or the Good Friday Agreement, which the Tony Blair government concluded in 1998, and which led to ending the bloody sectarian war in Northern Ireland. One of the main features of the agreement is abolishing the hard border between the north and the south. It is well known that the US backed the republican Irish party Sinn Féin, which called for union with the Republic of Ireland in the south, and its military wing the Irish Republican Army (IRA), with the aim of blackmailing and downsizing Britain and destabilising her security.

It is also well known that Britain’s exit from the EU was due to the centrality of the principle of sovereignty, which is the alert centre of the British people and their historical heritage. Britain deems her parliament as the quintessence of authority and sovereignty, and this was the main sticking point with the laws of the EU and the rulings of the European courts. Britain’s exit from the EU was also due to her alignment with the US in most of the continental and international issues, especially the issue of European security, NATO, and a host of economic issues.

Some British voices threatening to abolish the Northern Ireland Protocol or suspending its implementation by activating Article 16, which gives Britain the right to suspend certain rules, especially if the latter should face major economic upheavals, have been growing louder since May 2021. Meanwhile, Ireland and the EU warned of the dire consequences and instability which could result from suspending the implementation of the protocol, and the European Commission confirmed in July 2021 that the protocol was the joint solution the EU had reached with UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and which was ratified by the UK’s parliament, to face the exceptional challenges imposed by Britain’s exit from the EU.

However, since Boris Johnson faced ethical issues for breaching Covid-19 lockdown together with some of his cabinet members, and since his party lost some of its members, in addition to the losses the Conservatives suffered in the local elections last month, Johnson, his Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and his Brexit Minister have been upping the ante with regard to the protocol; this culminated in Johnson’s decision to table a draft bill to introduce some amendments to the Northern Ireland Protocol, and to include it in the Queen’s Speech on the state’s opening of parliament. While the EU exhorted Johnson to fulfil his commitments vis-à-vis the “signed international agreements”, several statements were issued expressing Washington’s disapproval of London’s attempts to thwart the protocol, such as the statement of Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, before Chatham House, pertaining to London’s plans to introduce legislation aimed at generating some exceptions to the protocol without prior agreement with the EU. She warned that, “If there’s destruction of the Good Friday Accords, they (Congress) are very unlikely to have a UK-US bilateral agreement.” But when her statement was met by nonchalance from Conservative Party members, the DUP, and UK ambassador to Washington, Congress dispatched a delegation headed by Congressperson Richard Neal, who is a Biden confidant, to London, Paris, Dublin, and Belfast, where he met several influential figures. Richard Neal also met UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, who is known to have incited the popular base supporting Brexit, and who announced that she rejected their proposals and insisted that she would not allow the crisis to continue. However, the tweet of Liz Truss following the meeting revealed the depth of the diplomatic problem that London faces; she attempted to cajole America by recalling Britain’s role in the “alliance against the invasion of Ukraine”, but the US envoy brushed aside her statement and commented solely on the issue of Ireland. This corroborated Washington’s support for the EU’s standpoint, a narrative reflected in the Euro-American joint declaration, following the Paris meeting between representatives of the European Parliament and members of US Congress, which insinuated that renegotiating the protocol was not an option. Hence, following Foreign Secretary Liz Truss’s and Chief Negotiator of Task Force Europe Lord Frost’s repeated threats, the White House sent a clear diplomatic message through US Department of State’s senior adviser Derek Chollet, who said, “a big fight between the UK and the EU" was, "the last thing" Washington wanted. He added, "And it's particularly important right now where we need to send a message of unity to the world and not undermine all the things that we've been so successful in working on together over the last several months and showing unity in Ukraine." He also said, "We want to see this issue resolved and we want to see the temperature lowered and no unilateral acts.” This amounted to an implicit warning to Johnson, his Foreign Secretary, and his Brexit minister.

We conclude from this that America wants to maintain the status quo in Northern Ireland and to muzzle Johnson, lest he should confuse the issues and undermine her strategic aims and international plans, by harnessing the Euro-Russian crisis and his significant services to Washington in the Ukrainian file to achieve a breakthrough in the Irish file and gain some expedient and political achievements on the domestic front.
Disparity in the US and UK standpoints towards this issue are clearly reflected in Downing Street’s decision to dispatch Minister of State for Northern Ireland Conor Burns to Washington to expound London’s viewpoint. He said the protocol was, “Feeding into a sense within parts of the unionist community that somehow the protocol sets them apart from the rest of the United Kingdom.”

London has no solutions to put forward and feels infuriated by the protocol since it undermines her sovereignty. This was expressed by Johnson during a television interview by saying that he had signed the protocol thinking that the EU would not, “apply” it. London’s grievances were merely confined to the bureaucratic upheavals British companies were facing before delivering their goods to Northern Ireland, which in essence was because the British government was ill-prepared for Brexit and because it did not implement an electronic customs system to facilitate the work of British companies.

In fact, what is rattling Johnson’s cage and compelling him to gamble with his relationship with the US is his inability to fulfil his electoral political and economic pledges related to Brexit. This has piled up the complications and political failures on Johnson, such as the historic victory of Sinn Féin, the party that has been objecting every move pertinent to the protocol by London, in the Northern Ireland Assembly.

It is known that since the process of the Brexit referendum in 2016, the Irish government launched a widespread diplomatic campaign in America among the Irish community, who has a significant political presence in the US, including Joe Biden and several representatives and senators, which culminated in the US reminding the European Commission of the necessity to highlight the issue and maintain the principles of the Irish peace agreement known as the Good Friday Agreement, such as establishing no hard borders between the north and the south. America harnessed the agreement to achieve her aims from Brexit, i.e., the tool she exploited to restructure the EU and its institutions and turn it into a fragmented continental economic bloc, thus leading to weakening both the EU and Britain and keeping them constantly in need of the US.

13 Thil Qi’dah 1443h
13 June 2022