US offers no response as unionists react with anger to Joe Biden stance on NI Protocol - parties agree that Irish Sea Border breaches consent principle of Belfast Agreement

The US government has offered no response to unionist shock over its support for the highly contentious NI Protocol - which unionists unanimously believe overrides the consent required by the Belfast Agreement.

Friday, 19th March 2021, 6:30 am
Updated Friday, 19th March 2021, 8:57 am

The News Letter reported yesterday that US President Joe Biden’s administration has apparently resigned its position as a neutral player on NI and knowingly placed itself in direct opposition to unionism, by explicitly siding with Sinn Fein, the SDLP, Dublin and Brussels in the row over the Irish Sea customs border.

The DUP, UUP and TUV are fighting to get rid of the NI Protocol it is based on, arguing that it is a clear breach of the consent principle in the Belfast Agreement.

One of key Belfast Agreement negotiators, Lord Empey, told the News Letter: “What astonishes me consistently is that the UK government, the EU, and now the American administration all say they support the agreement, but they fail to consult with those of us who negotiated the agreement.”

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US President Joe Biden’s administration declined to respond to unionist concerns yesterday.

Yet despite the obvious tensions, a senior US official told the News Letter on Wednesday they are firmly supporting the protocol, and although aware of “challenges over its implementation” that it is “something that the UK and the EU need to resolve”.

DUP Leader Arlene Foster told the News Letter yesterday that the Belfast Agreement principle of consent cannot be ignored.

“During my call with the President and Vice President [on Wednesday] I made it clear that the Protocol is damaging to everyone in Northern Ireland and has no support within unionism. I also took the opportunity to highlight that such arrangements would not be tolerated within the United States and the principle of consent must not be ignored.”

UUP leader Steve Aiken yesterday backed Lord Empey’s warning that there would never have been a Belfast Agreement in 1988 if it had been set out as the US Government is now interpreting it.

Mr Aiken said: “Anyone who genuinely cares about the Belfast Agreement should listen up when someone like Lord Empey – who actually negotiated it on behalf of Unionism – says that the Agreement is being disregarded.”

He noted that the normal voting safeguards on critical matters have already been amended in legislation for the Assembly vote on the NI protocol in four years; Contrary to normal Belfast Agreement votes, no cross community approval will be now required to copperfasten the Irish Sea border in place.

And he queried how Washington could believe that the 100 year-old Irish land border could be considered a breach of the Belfast Agreement, but that unionist opposition to a new Irish Sea Border could “be disregarded and arrogantly waved away?”

He added: “It was only by listening to Unionism that the Belfast Agreement was made possible, so to ignore Unionist concerns now – with regard to the Protocol and the Irish Sea border - is a very unwise path to follow and one that leads us back to the failures of the past.”

TUV leader Jim Allister agreed that consent has been breeched. “Anyone, including the US President, who wishes to see our supply chains restricted, our trade fettered and our economy governed by laws we do not make and cannot change is clearly not a friend of Northern Ireland,” he said. “Rather, he supports the iniquitous Protocol because it advances the all-Ireland cause to which he is wedded.

“Likewise his support for the Belfast Agreement is premised on the same one sided approach. He mouths meaningless platitudes about the Belfast Agreement but studiously avoids its supposed, but clearly phoney, pledges on mutual consent. He knows full well the Protocol does not have unionist consent, but cares nothing about that.”

UUP MLA Doug Beattie said the Protocol damages the Belfast Agreement and that is why the UUP has begun a Judicial Review against it.

“The Belfast Agreement gave citizens certain rights and if those rights can be unilaterally suspended then we have no option but to address it,” he said. “President Biden appears to be listening to those who are shouting loudest and that seems to be the Irish Government and the European Union.”

Mr Beattie also noted the comments of Fine Gael TD Lisa Chambers, chair of Seanad Éireann committee, on the withdrawal of the UK from the EU.

She said: “If we had a border on the Island we would have damaged the Good Friday Agreement and we would have had this tension.  But I also accept actually that having what is effectively a border in the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and Great Britain also causes damage. I fully accept that.”

Ulster University Politics Lecturer Dr Cillian McGrattan agreed that the consent principle has been damaged by the protocol.

He said: “The critical thing about the Belfast agreement was that it enshrined the principle of consent: ‘that any change in the constitutional position of Northern Ireland can only occur if desired by a majority’.”

“There’s no doubt that the imposition of the Sea Border does just that. It also leaves unionism without any solid ground on which to stand to exert leverage, let alone support. In contrast, nationalists enjoy the vociferous encouragement of Dublin, the Biden White House and the EU.”

The US administration declined to offer any reaction to the concerns raised by the above contributors.

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Alistair Bushe