18 September 2020

The Government should challenge Irish America’s lies about the Good Friday Agreement

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There are many criticism you could level at Boris Johnson’s Internal Markets Bill, but the idea that it threatens the Good Friday Agreement is baseless nonsense.

On Wednesday, Joe Biden piled in on the subject, saying that if he becomes President he will not allow the Good Friday accord to become a “casualty of Brexit”. “Any trade deal between the US and the UK must be contingent upon respect for the Agreement and preventing the return of a hard border in Ireland,” he tweeted.

He attached an image of a bi-partisan letter signed by four Congressman, which threatens to scupper a US-UK trade deals if Britain dares to “undermine the Northern Ireland protocol of the withdrawal agreement”. It claims the Government’s policies, “could have disastrous consequences for the Good Friday Agreement”.

This fevered reaction rests on the completely erroneous assumption, promoted energetically by Irish nationalists, that the agreement effectively removed the land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The former Irish prime minister, Leo Varadkar, and his government, insisted throughout the Brexit negotiations that they would not accept a border in Ireland, as if the two parts of the island had already been constitutionally merged.

The agreement certainly resulted in the removal of security installations along the frontier, because the threat of IRA terrorism had largely receded, but it had no impact on customs or trade rules between the two jurisdictions.

For that reason, rather than quote the text, nationalists, Remainers and the Irish government habitually interpret the ‘context’ and the ‘spirit’ of the Good Friday deal in their favour, in an attempt to prove that it is incompatible with Northern Ireland being included fully in Brexit. They imply hidden content that supports their view; such as when the SDLP MP, Claire Hanna, claimed that the agreement contained a, “fourth unwritten… strand. The European dimension.”

In fact, the document’s central tenet, the ‘principle of consent’, determines that:

“the present wish of a majority of people in Northern Ireland, freely exercised and legitimate, is to maintain the Union and, accordingly, Northern Ireland’s status as part of the United Kingdom reflects and relies upon that wish; and it would be wrong to make any change in the status of Northern Ireland save with the consent of a majority of its people”.

You will not hear this part of the agreement (or indeed any part of the text) quoted by those who say that the protocol is needed to protect the Belfast Agreement. That’s because their argument is driven by an ideological assumption that Northern Ireland’s links with Great Britain must be gradually eroded and it should move steadily toward political absorption by the Republic.

The current hysteria is particularly absurd, because, while there has never been any credible evidence that a hard border in Ireland infringes the agreement, or that an Irish Sea frontier is needed to enact Brexit and protect the ‘peace process’, the Internal Market Bill does not even challenge these concepts directly. Its controversial clauses empower the government to soften some of the more extreme measures to which they signed up in the Northern Ireland protocol, but the province will remain in the single market for agriculture and the EU’s customs code will apply.

You could argue that, under international law, Ulster companies should be required to complete exit declarations when they sell products to Great Britain, or pay up-front tariffs on the widest possible range of goods bought elsewhere in the UK, but claiming these measures protect the Belfast Agreement is risible. Even if the government fails to negotiate a free trade deal with the EU, it clearly intends to implement checks at ports and airports in Northern Ireland.

Preparations to impose an Irish Sea border are already well underway.

The government agreed to this horrific plan to divide up the UK’s economy and, for that reason, anxieties about the IMB’s impact on international law are legitimate. In contrast, the idea that the protocol protects peace in Ireland is driven by people who see an Irish Sea border as an opportunity to realign Northern Ireland politically, away from Britain and toward the Republic of Ireland.

That’s why the reaction in the US is so blatantly an extension of Irish American lobbying. Peter King, the Republican signatory to the letter from Congress, is a veteran supporter of Noraid, an organisation that raised money to enable republican terrorism. He described the IRA as “the legitimate voice of occupied Ireland” and regards the British government as “a murder machine.” His Democrat colleague, Eliot Engel, is a long-term associate of Gerry Adams.

Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House of Representatives, has consistently threatened to block a UK-US trade deal if Irish nationalists do not get their way on Brexit. When she came to Ireland last year to offer her support, she astonished observers by hugging Adams warmly and caressing his beard.

Joe Biden, odds on with the bookies to become the next president, is the archetype of an embarrassing, sentimental Irish American uncle. When he’s not bloviating about Yeats and Seamus Heaney, he’s making cracks about not allowing anyone wearing orange into the White House on St Patrick’s day. As a former aide told the New York Times, “the Irish cause is in his veins”.

These are people without a shred of scepticism about the Irish nationalist campaign. Indeed they subscribe to its analysis wholesale. Their type of thinking leaves no room for examining the detail of the Belfast Agreement. They simply see that accord as a step on the way to an inevitable all-Ireland state.

The US has been allowed for too long to interfere in Northern Ireland’s affairs and the UK has already capitulated to Irish nationalism by agreeing to divide up its territory with a border down the Irish Sea. This time, the Government should have no compunction about putting Irish America firmly back in its box.

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Owen Polley is a writer, commentator, consultant, and the co-author 'An Agenda for Northern Ireland After Brexit'.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.