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Boris Johnson was lobbying for an audience with Joe Biden. The Prime Minister is visiting the United States this month to attend the United Nations General Assembly.
The trip generated a tangible air of desperation in Downing Street. No other post-war prime minister has waited so long for that precious White House photo call with a new US president. Johnson rarely showers invitations from other world leaders.
After the UK was sidelined during the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, this week’s deal on a new US-UK-Australia defense pact made positive note. As host of the COP 26 climate conference in November, Johnson is also seeking stronger US commitments to reduce carbon emissions.
What Biden is earning from the top is less clear. He doesn’t like Johnson very much. He makes no apologies for Afghanistan, and in any case, Johnson showed no interest until things went wrong. As for global warming, any deal will be struck in November between the United States, China and the European Union.
To all of that, it’s good to talk and the president can add his own agenda items. They should start and end with Northern Ireland. Besides the damage to the UK’s international standing, Johnson’s efforts to roll back the Irish trade arrangements enshrined in his Brexit deal with the EU-27 are now under way. threatens the fabric of peace in the province.
Johnson’s demand that the EU rewrite the agreement prompted the DUP to threaten the collapse of the Belfast Joint Administration. The dispute further sharpened divisions between unionists and nationalists, and undermined the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
The Northern Ireland protocol is not perfect. In order to maintain an open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic – a central clause of reconciliation between unionists and nationalists – it grants special status to the province within the scope of the EU single market. This in turn requires that goods traveling to Northern Ireland from the British mainland be screened in order to protect the single market. It is also fair to say that the EU was initially very enthusiastic in implementing checks.
The problem is that Johnson wants more than one measure of the EU’s operational resilience. It challenges the protocol infrastructure. By giving Northern Ireland privileged access to EU markets, it necessarily provides a role for EU institutions. The Prime Minister learned about this when he signed the agreement. But he has now decided that this is an affront to national sovereignty.
The fact that the deal treats Northern Ireland differently from the rest of the UK is the central complaint of unionists. But inexplicably, the DUP flatly rejected the formula that would have avoided this by keeping the entire UK closer to Brussels. For his part, Johnson decided that unitary sensibilities could be sacrificed for his goal of Brexit.
which was then. Johnson is nothing if not fickle. He now complains that he has been acting under intense political pressure in the UK Parliament. His Brexit negotiator, Lord Frost, was encouraging the DUP in his opposition. This week, Frost threatened to suspend the agreement unless Brussels agreed to write off the role of the EU’s institutions.
The Brexit deal treats Northern Ireland differently but there is nothing new in this. Margaret Thatcher set a precedent when she gave a role in county affairs to the Republic as part of the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985. This unique status was underlined by the 1993 Downing Street Declaration and then the Belfast Peace Agreement. The DUP didn’t like all of these agreements but learned to live with them.
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So what is Biden’s role? What is most evident is that the Prime Minister needs to be told, as frankly as these occasions allow, that Britain is doing itself a great disservice by breaching the confidence of its signature on international treaties. You cannot defend the rule of law if you scoff at it.
The president has an interest beyond his personal predecessors and the political weight that the Irish diaspora wields in Congress. Successive US administrations have played a pivotal role in fostering reconciliation in Northern Ireland. Their help may be needed again.
Both the EU and Dublin have indicated they are willing to make concessions to preserve the agreement – and lay the foundations for restoring good relations between the UK and its European neighbours. Biden’s message should be that of a loyal friend, if not from Johnson, then surely from the UK: Take the deal.
This column has been updated to reflect the new defense agreement of the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia
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