Ben Lowry: John Bolton’s criticism of Ireland reflects a strain of US thinking

Boris Johnson was back in Kyiv yesterday, showing support for Ukraine.

By Ben Lowry
Saturday, 18th June 2022, 10:23 am
Updated Tuesday, 21st June 2022, 6:13 am
John Bolton is dismissed as too hard line even for Donald Trump, but has said things about Ireland and Britain that other influential Americans believe
John Bolton is dismissed as too hard line even for Donald Trump, but has said things about Ireland and Britain that other influential Americans believe

The prime minister was criticised for pulling out of a meeting with northern Conservative MPs so that he could instead make the journey east.

He was also accused of opportunism.

But there is no doubt that the reputation of the United Kingdom has been enhanced by its early and sustained support for the Ukrainians, against the Russian invasion.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The resolve of other European powers such as Germany has waxed and waned, in large part because they are so dependent on Moscow for energy (a vulnerability made much worse by Angela Merkel’s foolish decision to ditch nuclear power after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster).

In any event, the UK has long been respected when it comes to matters such as defence and the protection of western values.

In fact many critics of Brexit urged British voters to understand the great influence that it had within the European Union (I always found that one of the most persuasive arguments in favour of remaining).

In particular, London has significant influence in Washington DC (although people who scoff at the idea of such influence are right to say that America will usually pursue its own interests regardless of what Britain thinks or does).

And yet that UK sway in the US is at its weakest when it comes to Northern Ireland.

On the whole during the Troubles London saw off any official US government support for an Irish nationalist position on the dispute here, despite the relentless lobbying of Irish Americans.

But even so, rarely has any senior American official talked in the way John Bolton did this week about the Northern Ireland Protocol.

America’s former National Security Advisor wrote a scathing article in the Daily Telegraph about President Joe Biden’s “clueless” support for the Republic of Ireland over the Irish Sea border.

While Northern Ireland “should not be used to re-litigate the Brexit decision,” Mr Bolton wrote, “that is precisely what the EU overloards, through their Irish surrogate, are attempting”.

He said that America’s interests are “opposite to Biden’s views”.

The most fundamental point, Mr Bolton said, “is whether national law prevails over international law when the two conflict”.

In an implied riposte to the hypocrisy of American politicians such as Congressman Richard Neal, who made a recent second trip to Ulster to scold the UK over its handling of part of its territory, Mr Bolton said the number of American politicians “prepared to say that the [US] Constitution and laws enacted thereunder are subordinate to international law is between few and none, for good reason”.

Assessing the “true US national interests” over the dispute around the Northern Ireland Protocol he wrote: “What Washington really needs, strategically and politically, is a strong UK, helping to lead the Nato alliance both in the immediate crisis and longer term, reinvigorating the special relationship on a global basis after years of ternsions. With all due respect, Ireland is not a Nato member. Even as Finland and Sweden apply for Nato membership, Ireland remains mute. That is certainly Ireland’s choice: so are the consequences.”

It is worth quoting Mr Bolton’s column at such length because what he said is so unusual for someone who held such a senior position in the US government.

Some Irish commentators have in recent years sneered at British “exceptionalism” — the idea being that the UK thinks it is better than everyone else, and as a result wrongly believes that it can easily navigate its own path on Brexit and Covid.

But in fact I would say that it is Irish ‘exceptionalism’ that is so striking.

Mr Bolton referred to the consequences that Ireland faces for its choices. But what consequences? I see almost none.

Irish ministers for six years have freely criticised UK ones on everything from Brexit to legacy to the Irish language, and barely a word is said in return — ever.

Irish ministers can be relentlessly partial in defence of nationalist demands during the interminable political crises here, yet at the same time nationalist Ireland insists upon — and usually gets — neutrality from UK ministers regarding unionist demands.

Ireland can be one of the most hostile states towards Israel in the western world (most of the rest of which accepts that Israel is far closer to western values than the semi failed states around it). But not a whimper is said about this stance.

Ireland can be high minded about rejecting nuclear power yet import it via interconnectors to Great Britain and France (the latter planned).

And above all it can be neutral, potentially dependent for example on RAF to defend its airspace, yet barely a word will be said about it staying out of Nato. No other western country would have dared to stand in the way of (for example) its current temporary place on the UN security council.

Mr Bolton has been mocked as being too extreme even for Donald Trump (who sacked him). But you could just as easily say that Mr Trump was too extreme and unstable even for a hardliner such as Mr Bolton.

He has said things about Ireland and Britain in that article that other influential Americans believe.

And while Dublin still has influence in America massively disproportionate to its size, one reason that a weakened Boris Johnson has got so far with his NI Protocol Bill is because the US pressure on the UK to accede to Ireland is not as great as the likes of Congressman Neal would have you believe.

Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter editor