EVEN BEFORE the G7 summit started this week in Cornwall, Joe Biden was expected to lecture Boris Johnson on the ‘peace process’ in Ulster, and so it has come to pass. The US President claims that the Prime Minister must implement the Northern Ireland Protocol in full, in order to ‘protect’ the Good Friday Agreement.
When the Irish Sea border was implemented, in part, in January 2021, it disrupted business and slashed choice for consumers immediately. Its effects have been mitigated only because the government unilaterally extended ‘grace periods’ so that supermarkets could continue to ship food to the province without expensive vets’ certificates and checks. There are similar temporary dispensations for parcels, medicines and ‘pet passports’.
From this Autumn, though, pet owners will need to have their animals inspected by vets if they wish to take them to the rest of the UK. And, from the end of this month, the EU insists chilled meats must be banned from moving from England, Scotland or Wales to Northern Ireland, otherwise the Commission’s vice-president, Maros Šefčovič, says Brussels will punish Britain, “swiftly, firmly and resolutely”.
The economic impact of this bullying behaviour is appalling, but as the leader of the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) party, Jim Allister, explained on the latest episode of the PoliticalOD podcast, the protocol’s constitutional consequences are equally worrying. The Irish Sea border is quite specifically intended to realign Northern Ireland’s economy with that of the Irish republic and dilute British power and influence in the province.
If Biden genuinely thinks that the ‘peace process’ is secured by emptying supermarket shelves, punishing pet owners and depriving patients of cancer drugs it is deeply troubling to the point of being surreal. Such a warped view could only be connected to the fact that the President is notoriously proud of his Irish nationalist ancestry. He’s prone to bloviating about poets like Yeats and Seamus Heaney and making wisecracks about not allowing people to wear orange in the White House.
Brussels argued for the Protocol by claiming it was needed to protect its single market from goods that were ‘at risk’ of entering the EU. The joint committee set up to implement the arrangements was supposed to exempt product categories from ‘at risk’ status, so that Northern Ireland could continue to enjoy unfettered access to the UK’s internal market. Predictably, though, Brussels refused to take a realistic approach to this task and instead used the Protocol to try to force the UK into ‘dynamic alignment’ with its agriculture rules.
There are already more checks on goods moving between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, two parts of the same country in case anybody had forgotten, than at any external EU border. Yet, the likes of Simon Coveney (the Irish foreign minister), Šefčovič and now Biden heap abuse on Britain for not rushing to implement an even harsher regime.
The US President seems to accept Brussels’ propaganda unquestioningly and, like many Americans before him, sees Northern Ireland exclusively through an Irish nationalist lens. That may explain why, at the weekend, the Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis appointed Trevor Ringland, the former Ireland and British and Irish Lions rugby player, as the UK’s special envoy to the United States on Northern Ireland.
This appointment immediately drew complaints from Sinn Fein’s northern leader, Michelle O’Neill, who described it as “arrogant and disrespectful”. Like the SNP, republicans are past masters at creating new grievances. And it’s easy to see why they would be worried by Northern Ireland having an articulate and persuasive advocate in the US.
Trevor’s sporting past ensures he commands respect across the island of Ireland and he’s used his influence to promote reconciliation and oppose sectarianism, as well as defending the Union articulately. He’s spoken already about “challenging some of the simplistic (American) views on Northern Ireland”. “There are a variety of views but some are based on the ‘it is an occupied island’ mentality. It’s for me to say: look it is not like that at all. People here choose to live in the UK and there are many benefits to that. But we also realise we’re part of the island of Ireland.”
The Irish American lobby’s influence will not be dislodged quickly or easily. Many of the ‘simplistic views’ that Trevor references are deeply ingrained. However, Northern Ireland needs advocates in the US who promote it as it really is; a region of the UK whose status reflects the will of its people. There will always be plenty of voices that spread the nationalist fantasy of a ‘fourth green field’, destined to form part of a single Irish nation if only it could finally rid itself of the invidious ‘Brits’.
Earlier this week, The Atlantic reported that Boris Johnson doesn’t like to talk about a ‘special relationship’ between the UK and the US, because it makes Britain appear needy. He should keep that thought prominently in his mind, if Joe Biden tries to reprimand him for failing to implement aspects of the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Not for one instant would an American President consider restricting the supply of food to part of his own country at the command of a foreign power.
Photo courtesy of US Embassy in Ireland.