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UK aims to calm US fears over Brexit, N. Ireland

September 18, 2020

British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab sought to allay fears the UK was endangering peace in Ireland with its most recent Brexit brinksmanship. Raab directly rebutted a warning from US presidential candidate Joe Biden.

Raab and Pompeo at a press conference
Image: Nicholas Kamm/AP Photo/picture-alliance

UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said the UK's commitment to the Good Friday Agreement was "absolute," as he stood alongside his US counterpart Mike Pompeo in Washington on Wednesday.

Raab's statement, as well as another delivered on the US cable news network CNN, came in direct response to a tweet by Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden — an Irish-American Catholic.

"We can't allow the Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland to become a casualty of Brexit. Any trade deal between the US and UK must be contingent upon respect for the agreement and preventing the return of a hard border. Period,'' Biden wrote on Twitter.

Raab: 'We've been crystal clear all along'

Speaking on CNN, Raab said: "The Good Friday Agreement is not in jeopardy ... We've been crystal clear all along, we're committed to it. Rest assured, we want to resolve the issues with our European partners, but there is not going to be any hard border [in Ireland], certainly not applied by the UK."

Read more:  At Irish border, Brexit evokes history of violence

At issue is the latest bit of Brexit brinksmanship from Westminster, in which the British House of Commons on Monday passed the so-called Internal Market Bill, in direct violation of its EU Withdrawal Agreement.

The move has caused outrage among EU negotiating partners who claim it is a threat to peace in Northern Ireland as it would potentially require a hard border between Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, and the Republic of Ireland, a member of the European Union.

The idea of an open border is key to the Good Friday Agreement, and the current UK government's course has set off alarms in Brussels as well as the UK, with five former British prime ministers railing against the concept of violating the legal terms of the EU Withdrawal Agreement.

EU 'food blockades' and other fearmongering

Raab on Thursday sought to shift blame instead to the EU, saying, "The threat to the Good Friday Agreement, as it is reflected in the Northern Ireland Protocol, comes from wathe EU's politicization of the issue ... our commitment to the Good Friday Agreement and to avoid any extra infrastructure at the border at the North and the South is absolute."

Raab's comments come in the midst of repeated statements by UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson that the UK is only acting to secure a lifeline between Britain and Northern Ireland, even going so far as to suggest that the EU would set up "food blockades" to cut ties between mainland Britain and its provincial ward.

Raab echoed those sentiments Thursday, saying, "We cannot have the EU trying to erect a regulatory border in the Irish Sea."

Read more: The Irish border — what you need to know

Johnson, who was instrumental in the UK's Brexit referendum, has consistently argued that the EU is negotiating in bad faith. That has drawn strong rebuttals from the EU, with spokesman Eric Mamer challenging Johnson to "ask any of the EU's hundreds of international treaty partners" if the bloc "negotiated in good faith."

Brussels has insisted the UK drop its controversial Internal Market Bill by the end of September or face legal action. Many observers are uncertain whether Johnson is aiming for a so-called no-deal Brexit, or simply trying to force concessions from the EU for a better trade deal after the divorce is final.

The EU, Irish and UK flags in Brussels
Brexit negotiators from the EU and UK talked for months on the issue of Ireland and Northern IrelandImage: picture-alliance/dpa/AP/F. Seco

Strong Irish influence in the US

Though the idea is often scoffed at by British observers, the Republic of Ireland exerts strong influence in the United States. This has historical and ethnic grounds — with some 35 million Americans claiming Irish roots on the last US census — but it also has to do with politicking on the part of the Republic of Ireland.

Ireland has always maintained close ties to Irish-American politicians. And US lawmakers have also shown strong historical support for the Irish republic, from backing its independence to being actively engaged in the cause of peace in Northern Ireland. It was influential Irish-Americans who lobbied President Bill Clinton to forge ahead with the historic Good Friday Agreement of 1998.

Raab is meeting with some of those politicians while in Washington this week. He met Wednesday with Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the most powerful person in the US House of Representatives.

Pelosi released a statement after the visit. In it, she wrote that she had reiterated the message she delivered last year in London, saying: "If the U.K. violates its international agreements and Brexit undermines the Good Friday accord, there will be absolutely no chance of a US-UK trade agreement passing the Congress. The Good Friday Agreement is valued by the American people and will continue to be proudly defended in the United States Congress."

js/sms (AFP, AP, Reuters)