An international furore has erupted following the decision of Britain’s Foreign Secretary Liz Truss to introduce legislation at Westminster last week to unilaterally alter the Brexit deal. The European Union has again warned that “action calls for reaction”.
Unionists and right-wing extremists had been pushing Boris Johnson’s administration to renege on the protocol, which it negotiated and agreed in December 2020.
A bipartisan US delegation has been meeting political leaders in an attempt to prevent a British withdrawal from the Irish Protocol of Brexit and the peace accords it is designed to protect.
And in a strongly-worded intervention, the Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, has urged Britain to uphold peace in the north, which she described as a “beacon of hope for the entire world”.
“As I have stated in my conversations with the prime minister, the foreign secretary and members of the House of Commons, if the United Kingdom chooses to undermine the Good Friday accords, the Congress cannot and will not support a bilateral free trade agreement with the United Kingdom,” the Speaker said in a written statement.
She added: “Ensuring there remains no physical border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland is absolutely necessary for upholding this landmark agreement, which has transformed Northern Ireland.”
The EU has already warned of a potential trade war if the UK moves ahead with its legislation.
The protocol is a means to avoid the reintroduction of a hard border through the island of Ireland following Britain’s vote to leave the EU, although goods traded between the north of Ireland and Britain have become subject to checks.
Despite a series of small rallies, unionist opposition to the measures failed to win support and made no impact on the results of the Assembly election earlier this month. Nevertheless, the DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson, whose party fell to second place behind Sinn Fein for the first time, has blocked the Assembly from meeting over what unionists describe as a new border down the Irish Sea.
A US diplomatic effort has been meeting political leaders in Belgium, Britain and Ireland in recent days in a bid to resolve the issue.
Addressing Irish senators on Tuesday, Congressman Richard Neal said that “any incautious move” to undo the protocol would put the Good Friday peace Agreement at risk. He said that negotiation was needed, not unilateral action.
“The number one priority for the United States on this island is to ensure that the hard-won peace in Northern Ireland is preserved and reinforced,” he said.
“The Good Friday Agreement worked because it had something in it for all sides. It happened because those involved acted together in good faith and the hardest men and women had to make that agreement.
“Everybody gave up something to agree to this place.
“The Republic of Ireland relinquished articles two and three of its constitution which laid claim – at the request of (former Irish president and taoiseach Eamon) De Valera – to the North. But the UK gave up the border.
“Unilateral actions, intransigence and ultimatums are not solutions, nor have they ever been.
“America will continue to nudge and nurture this agreement. After all, the Good Friday Agreement is America’s too.”
He also suggested the crisis was being “manufactured”, and that there was a “vagueness” from London over why it needs new legislation. He told reporters in Dublin that it’s “up to London” to help find a solution.
“The protocol dispute seems to me to be a manufactured issue,” he said. “I have on this delegation people who are experts at trade and they also would confirm that they think these issues on the trade front, if that’s really the dispute, could be ironed out quickly.
“So, what we’ve heard so far, clearly from (the) European Union, is they want to find a solution. What we’ve heard from the Minister (Simon Coveney), the Taoiseach and the President, they want to find a solution. We, the congressional delegation, want to find a solution.
“So, I think now it’s up to London to help us all find a solution.”
Mr Neal also said he had had “some very hard conversations” with the British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss (pictured, centre) at the weekend.
“We don’t want to see anything disturbed and we intend to be as unwavering as is necessary,” he said. Of the response, Mr Neal said: “Safe to say there was a certain vagueness in the conversation.”
Speaking in Derry, he said he was optimistic a resolution could be reached.
“The people here took up much more severe challenges. We believe that based on the conversations that we had in Brussels and London, that this is an issue for the European Union, and for the UK Government to sift and sort.”
Mr Neal said the London government was still at the stage of only “planning” to pass legislation to dismantle parts of the protocol and there was “still room” for negotiations with the EU.
“I don’t think that there ought to be an arbitrary decision to abandon the protocol without negotiation. I think abrogating an international treaty is not only bad faith but it sends considerably the wrong message.”
Democratic Congressman Dan Kildee, who was part of the delegation who met British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss on Sunday, also urged the British government to engage in face-to-face negotiations with Brussels to resolve the outstanding issues.
“The only way we can come to agreement, the only way we protect the incredible progress that’s represented with the Good Friday Agreement, is face-to-face negotiation,” he said.
He said it was difficult to determine Britain’s true motivation but there was no indication yet that it intends to change course.
Mr Neal and his delegation is currently in Belfast and will meet with Stormont’s main parties on Thursday.
Following her meeting with the delegation in Dublin, Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald praised the “diligence and commitment” of US political leaders to the Good Friday Agreement.
“These agreements face challenges from a British government that plays fast and loose with international law and places narrow Tory party concerns above the needs of the people and economy of the north,” she said.
“We all agree the way forward is clear - the DUP need to get back to work and stop blocking the formation of an executive. The British government must abide by international law.”
And the dispute risks undermining Western unity during the Ukraine war, a senior US official said.
Derek Chollet told the BBC that “a big fight between the UK and the EU” was “the last thing” Washington wanted. Vladimir Putin would “use any opportunity he can to show that our alliance is fraying”, he added.
Mr Chollet, the most senior adviser to US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, said: “We want to see this issue resolved and we want to see the temperature lowered and no unilateral acts.
“And it’s particularly important right now where we need to send a message of unity to the world and not undermine all the things that we’ve been so successful in working on together over the last several months and showing unity in Ukraine.”