international analysis and commentary

The US-UK trade deal: Northern Ireland reveals uncomfortable truths


A trade deal with the US has long been a centerpiece of ambition for devoted Brexiteers. A pro-EU, Irish American candidate winning the 2020 presidential election is not what they expected. The fragile peace in Northern Ireland will yet again, just as in the Brexit negotiations with the EU, hold the balance for the future of the so-called “special relationship”.

Every British Prime Minister aspires to be the first foreign visitor to the Oval Office when there is a new President. The UK’s declining influence in Europe, Boris Johnson’s perceived closeness to Donald Trump and the UK government’s careless treatment of the fragile peace in Northern Ireland will make Johnson slip in the order of priority of first calls or visits.

Joe Biden as US vice-president in 2016 meeting then taoiseach Enda Kenny during a visit to Ireland


First, the Northern Ireland peace process, resulting in the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, was a proud diplomatic achievement in which the US – including but not limited to former President Bill Clinton – played a significant part. Many Americans therefore feel a compelling obligation to defend it. Second, notwithstanding America’s special relationship with the UK, Irish Americans – including Biden and Richard Neal, Chair of the House Ways and Means Committee – have occupied a prominent and powerful role in American public life for many decades. In combination with the tortured history and legacy of British rule in Ireland, this has often made British policy toward Ireland an especially vulnerable spot for the US-UK relationship.

This is not to say that Dublin holds a veto over American relations with the UK in a broad sense. But it is inconceivable that a President Biden or the US Congress would endorse any British policy toward the Irish border that did not have the Republic’s consent. The EU and the UK are immersed in an intensified period of Brexit negotiations. Both sides say they hope a trade deal can be struck, which can then be ratified in time for the end of the Brexit transition period on 31 December 2020.

The UK must prepare for a Biden administration that keeps a particularly close eye on how Brexit affects Ireland, given the Irish influence in the Democratic Party and Biden’s own Irish background. The new administration will prioritize trade with the EU just as the UK has opted out of an influential position in Europe. Johnson has made a US-UK free trade agreement a guiding ambition of his government, and he has claimed that the UK would be “first in line to do a great free trade deal” with the Trump administration. In the US, this fantasy has been inflated by Trump, too, who said in late July 2019 that he had spoken to Johnson by phone and supported an “ambitious trade agreement” with Britain after Brexit.

However, as Boris Johnson and Donald Trump have been making their triumphant claims, the Irish government has been building up support among its own allies in the US Congress. So far, the Irish are in the stronger position in Washington. This has primarily been achieved with the help of the Friends of Ireland Caucus in the US Congress, which has been an effective advocate for Irish interests in the United States and which claims to represent the interests of America’s large and politically diverse bipartisan Irish American constituency.

The painfully won relative stability of peace in Northern Ireland, founded on the Good Friday Agreement, is being put at risk by the UK government’s hard Brexit stance that would lead to a return of a hard border on the island of Ireland, an approach that is arousing opposition in the United States. This opposition from a Biden Presidency and Congress will serve to preclude any possibility of a favourable trade agreement between the US and the UK.

After the Johnson government introduced the Internal Market Bill, which put the UK’s commitment to the Withdrawal Agreement in question, the EU began asking how it can continue to negotiate with a government whose signature cannot be trusted. Goodwill among the EU27 towards the British government is at an all-time low. The Bill does not seek to eliminate the customs border in the Irish Sea that Johnson agreed to in October 2019 – merely to weaken aspects of it. Nevertheless, the Bill has led to fears in Dublin and Brussels that Johnson may ultimately seek to scrap that entire border.

The Prime Minister’s dislike of the Withdrawal Agreement is heart-felt. That treaty contradicted the pledge that he had given earlier to the Northern Ireland Democratic Unionist Party that he would never allow a border in the Irish Sea. Johnson wants to unilaterally undo the Northern Ireland Protocol through his proposed legislation. This Internal Market Bill provides that there would be no checks on goods moving from the UK to Northern Ireland. The legislation would also empower UK ministers to override any rules to the contrary, such as the Northern Ireland Protocol. These powers would apply even if they are contrary to international law.

The government says the purpose of the law is to maintain the internal UK market and prevent tariffs on goods traveling across the Irish Sea. In proposing the bill, Johnson disavowed the treaty he signed with the EU and got through Parliament. Johnson seeks to renege on the legal obligations imposed in that document and act as if his signature were placed on it with his fingers crossed, hidden behind his back.

Most importantly, the bill threatened the peace achieved under the Good Friday Agreement, because it could lead to the re-establishment of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. If it is passed, checks on goods moving across the Irish border will have to be conducted to preserve EU unity and integrity. New custom posts at the border mean Northern Ireland and the Republic would have a hard border, like there was during The Troubles. This would raise tensions at the border with the potential to spark a return to violence.

The Northern Ireland border


Joe Biden fired a shot across Boris Johnson’s bow by warning him that a trade agreement with the US was incompatible with his Brexit negotiation strategy. He has sided with the EU by claiming that peace on the island of Ireland was at risk from the UK Internal Market Bill. “We can’t allow the Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland to become a casualty of Brexit,” Biden tweeted. “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 was not just fishing for Irish American votes. That is the firm position of his party and a large portion of America’s political class.

It is time for the UK government to realize the uncomfortable truth that failure to meet its obligations under the Good Friday Agreement could seriously spoil its “Global Britain” vision, including any ambitions of a comprehensive trade agreement with the US. All indications are that Biden will prioritize rebuilding US relations with the EU and its member states over a UK government that in the US is viewed as a Trumpian entity.

In December 2019, after hearing that Johnson had won the general election, Biden called Johnson a “physical and emotional clone” of President Trump. A year later, Biden delivered a warning to Johnson not to let Brexit destabilize the Northern Ireland peace process, in a call that suggested the “special relationship” is about to become more complicated. Biden surprised Downing Street by including Johnson among the first world leaders to receive a post-election phone call, but the diplomatic niceties were accompanied by a firm message on Brexit. “They talked about the importance of implementing Brexit in such a way that upholds the Good Friday Agreement,” said one British official. “The PM assured the President-elect that would be the case.” In his call with Michael Martin, the Irish Prime Minster, Biden also reaffirmed his support for the Good Friday Agreement and the peace process in Northern Ireland.

Under pressure from Washington and Brussels, the UK has had to climb down from its threat to breach the Withdrawal Agreement. The UK has accepted that EU officials will be able to station themselves in Northern Ireland to oversee the working of the Northern Irish Protocol. This is a significant concession from the UK and causing disquiet among Conservative Brexiteers and the DUP.

Boris Johnson and his special advisors, Westminster and large parts of the British media are shrouded in ignorance over the special US-Ireland relationship and over the commitment by generations of US presidents to the peace process in Northern Ireland. The UK would be well served to catch up with reality. The view in the US of its allies in Europe has evolved and is much more refined and will come to the fore even more explicitly under a Biden presidency.