US President Joe Biden says he backs the Irish Sea border, further isolating unionists attempting to have it removed

American President Joe Biden’s administration has made clear that it is taking sides in the dispute over the Irish Sea border – and it is not on unionism’s side.

Thursday, 18th March 2021, 7:11 am
Updated Friday, 19th March 2021, 12:17 am

Just hours before Mr Biden met virtually with the Taoiseach for St Patrick’s Day, one of the President’s senior officials told the News Letter that the new occupant of the Oval Office supports the Northern Ireland Protocol which creates the new GB-NI trade frontier.

That highly unusual and significant statement places the US on the same side of the debate as Sinn Fein, the SDLP, Alliance, the Green Party, the Irish government, the EU and Boris Johnson’s government – but directly opposing the position of all the unionist parties, who are campaigning to remove the protocol.

Mr Biden has repeatedly said that he supports the Good Friday Agreement, an uncontentious stance because of how that can be interpreted – nationalism argues that the protocol is necessary to protect the Agreement and unionism argues that the protocol is a breach of the Agreement.

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However, that ambiguity has now been removed and the US government has disregarded decades of acting cautiously to present itself as a neutral broker in Northern Ireland.

Last night Lord Empey, who was at David Trimble’s side as he negotiated the Agreement, expressed dismay at the move and the fear that US policy was moving back to that of the 1980s.

Nationalists will welcome a development which further isolates unionism and demonstrates that unionism is facing an increasingly powerful axis in support of the Irish Sea border.

US President Joe Biden hosts Irish Prime Minister Micheál Martin (L on screen) during a virtual bilateral meeting for St. Patrick's Day at the White House in Washington, DC, on March 17, 2021. (Photo by JIM WATSON / AFP) (Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)

Some unionists fear that the government’s desperation to get a trade deal with the US means that their views could be sacrificed to secure that financial agreement.

Yesterday the US President again reiterated his support for the Good Friday Agreement, with the White House describing the 1998 accord as “the bedrock of peace, stability, and prosperity for all the people of Northern Ireland.”

When asked by the News Letter if the expression of support for the Agreement to be taken as analogous with support for the NI Protocol, or if it was something much vaguer, the senior Biden administration official said: “President Biden has been unequivocal in his support for the Good Friday Agreement which was a historic achievement and as he said on the campaign trail last year we need to ensure that it does not become a casualty of Brexit.

“At the same time, the US government has welcomed provisions in both the EU and UK trade and cooperation agreement as well as the Northern Ireland Protocol which we believe helps protect the aims of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.

“Certainly as the UK and the EU are implementing Brexit-related provisions, the administration encourages both sides to continue prioritising political and economic stability in Northern Ireland in a way that benefits all communities.”

When asked if by deciding to back the protocol in the face of overwhelming unionist opposition to it, Mr Biden’s administration was consciously siding with nationalism’s interpretation of whether it was a breach of the 1998 Agreement, the official said: “The US administration is not looking to  take sides in this agreement; the Northern Ireland Protocol is something that was legally binding, that was agreed to by both sides and there was support for it here as a way to manage the practical challenges around the EU single market while preventing a return of a hard border.”

They added: “We’re aware that there have been challenges over its implementation. We see that as something that the UK and the EU need to resolve, and our belief is that the path forward needs to be a pragmatic one that provides political stability and economic prosperity for all the people in Northern Ireland.”

The official also said that the US viewed the dispute over the protocol as “a trade issue to be resolved between the UK and the EU, and hope that both sides are able to return to the table and discuss the implementation of the agreement”.

Referring to US Vice President Kamala Harris’s video call meeting with Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill yesterday, the official said that Ms Harris would “note how Northern Ireland’s unique position in the UK and EU markets can benefit all communities economically as we continue to support economic prosperity for all people in Northern Ireland”.

The senior official said that there was not yet any decision on whether Mr Biden would appoint an envoy to Northern Ireland, but that “certainly this administration will continue to remain very engaged in Northern Ireland and continue to strongly support political and economic stability there.”

In a video message yesterday, Mr Biden paid tribute to “our dear friend John Hume, a great man who gave so much to the cause of peace”.

Last night Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill held a video call with Vice President Kamala Harris. Speaking yesterday morning before the call, Mrs Foster said that she was looking forward to the call and said that “my focus will very much be on economic recovery when I speak to the Vice President today”.

When asked if that would include the NI Protocol, Mrs Foster told Good Morning Ulster: “Well, we certainly will talk about the huge difficulties of the protocol is visiting upon the people of Northern Ireland and the fact that it’s causing difficulties in terms of our east-west relationships. But I will want to look at the relationship across the Atlantic as well. I think that’s important. We have many US firms...so we will want to be focussing on the positives, as well as of course dealing with the challenges...”

However, in a joint statement with Ms O’Neill last night, there was no mention of the protocol having been discussed.

Last night Michelle O’Neill said that the meeting – which Mr Biden “dropped into” – “was hugely beneficial as they both reaffirmed their unequivocal support for the Irish peace process and full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement”.

NI Protocol would be rejected by Americans, Aiken tells Biden

Ulster Unionist leader Steve Aiken has written to Joe Biden to tell him that the terms of the NI Protocol would never be accepted in America.

Mr Aiken, whose wife is a US citizen and who as a former Royal Navy nuclear submarine commander fought in support of US troops in the middle east, wrote to the American President on Tuesday.

The South Antrim MLA said: “As someone with 50% of my family being US citizens, I know clearly how they would feel if as part of a ‘trade’ deal, a foreign power was able to dictate internal borders between states, and also threaten which foods they could buy, which medicines they could use, or even, bizarrely, that their pets wouldn’t be allowed to travel unless they had received vaccinations for diseases not even present in North America.

“As you can imagine, it wouldn’t be acceptable in Delaware (or especially in Georgia), so why should it be acceptable in Northern Ireland?”

He added: “Today we have only one ask of the United States, and that is to act as an honest broker, weighing up all sides of the argument, and to use your good offices to ensure that peace for all sides of our fractured community is maintained.

“Pushing for a heavily pro-EU interpretation of the protocol, which overrides at least 50% of the interests of the community in Northern Ireland, is nothing short of a recipe for disaster.”

Taoiseach tells president protocol ‘protects peace’

Irish Premier Micheal Martin has thanked US President Joe Biden for his “unwavering support” for the Belfast Agreement.

He said his support for the 1998 peace accord “meant a lot” during the Brexit negotiations.

Mr Biden again stated his support for the agreement in a virtual meeting with Mr Martin yesterday: “You know my view, and the view of my predecessor of the Obama/Biden administration, on the Good Friday Agreement, we strongly support them, we think it’s critically important they be maintained and the political and economic stability of Northern Ireland is very much in the interest of all of our people.”

Mr Martin responded saying: “It has meant a lot and it has mattered, including as we negotiated Brexit.

“With a new trading relationship now in place between the European Union and the United Kingdom, and a protocol that protects peace and avoids a hard border on this island, I want to move forward with a positive relationship with the United Kingdom.

“That means standing by what has been agreed and working together to make a success of it.

“That, in turn, can help maintain peace and promote greater reconciliation o our shared island – goals that I know you support.”

Mr Martin also told Mr Biden that their policies are “closely aligned” on the “big challenges the world faces”.

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