London’s refusal to honour its treaty obligations towards Ireland have been called out by Joe Biden in a major setback for British Prime Minister Boris Johnson during his first meeting with the new US President.
It was an embarrassing dose of reality for Johnson, whose plans for a fast-track trade deal were placed on hold by the US government amid attempts by London to weasel out of their Brexit deal on Ireland.
The British Prime Minister surprised commentators by appearing disengaged and disrespectful throughout various meetings, most noticeably failing to wear a mask when it was required.
Little tangible emerged from Johnson’s visit to Washington beyond the tabloid revelation that he has fathered six children. More crucially, there was no sign that his government would respect either the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement or peace process deals dating back to the 1998 Good Friday Agrement.
And Johnson was left in little doubt about Washington’s support for the process and the Irish protocol of Brexit following a crystal clear statement by Biden himself.
“I would not at all like to see, nor I might add would many of my Republican colleagues like to see, a change in the Irish accords, the end result having a closed border in Ireland,” he said.
Mr Biden also did not disagree with the assertion that Britain is at the “back of the queue” for a post-Brexit free trade agreement.
An attempt by British lobbyists to undermine the protocol, which prevents a remilitarised border and keeps trade links open between both parts of Ireland, received a frosty reception. Johnson was subsequently forced to admit for the first time that a trade deal is off the cards.
Although a diplomatic disaster for the Tories, the US government’s firm stance was welcomed in Ireland.
“This British government has become increasingly isolated internationally with respect to its stance on the Good Friday Agreement, legacy issues and now the Protocol,” said Sinn Féin National Chairperson Declan Kearney.
“It is past time for it to heed the calls of the international community and begin working through the Joint Committee to find solutions and implement the Protocol in a flexible way.”
Stormont Finance Minister Conor Murphy said Joe Biden had given Boris Johnson a “timely reminder” of the depth of feeling against the return of British border checkpoints across the island of Ireland.
“If Boris Johnson is looking at trade arrangements for the United States it is on the basis that they (the UK Government) are not damaging the Good Friday Agreement or any of the arrangements that flow from the Good Friday Agreement,” he said.
“So, I think it was a timely reminder for the British Prime Minister exactly where he fits in overall politics and the extent of support in the American administration, in Europe, across this island... for the Good Friday Agreement arrangements to be able to be protected.
“I hope that the British Prime Minister got that message and that he goes back and has a proper negotiation with the EU, that they resolve the issues of the protocol and we get on with actually taking advantage of the position that we have.”
Mr Murphy also said talk of London unilaterally suspending part of the protocol - ‘triggering Article 16’ - was a “distraction”.
“What they really need to do is sit around the table with the EU and negotiate this out sensibly,” he said. “The grandstanding both by the British government and by unionist parties here is a complete distraction for what needs to be done.”
There was also annoyance in Washington and Dublin after a British cabinet minister suggested Mr Biden, who closely follows events in Ireland, was acting based on “just reading the headlines”.
Environment Minister George Eustice, clearly unaware that individual US States operate their own food safety requirements, patronisingly added: “We will obviously explain to the United States effectively it is tantamount to saying that potatoes grown in one part of the United States can’t be sold in another part of the United States.
Mr Eustice said the protocol was “very complicated” and “I’m not sure he (Mr Biden) does fully appreciate all of that”.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin, who is also in the US, said the Biden administration “take [Brexit] seriously because obviously successive US governments have invested significantly in the peace process”.
He added: “Anybody who suggests that President Biden doesn’t get northern Ireland or understand it is wrong. He understands it very well.”