Boris Johnson's Brexit plans underestimate America's commitment to Northern Ireland's peace process – Henry McLeish

Boris Johnson’s adherence to the myth of British exceptionalism may scupper trade talks with the US, writes Henry McLeish.

Monday, 21st September 2020, 4:45 pm
The Democrats' presidential candidate Joe Biden has warned about the possible effect of Brexit on peace in Northern Ireland (Picture: Roberto Schmidt/AFP via Getty Images)
The Democrats' presidential candidate Joe Biden has warned about the possible effect of Brexit on peace in Northern Ireland (Picture: Roberto Schmidt/AFP via Getty Images)

Exceptionalism – a sense of superiority – has become a powerful component of Boris Johnson’s Government, and the elusive, unspoken driving force behind UK actions at home and abroad. The lack of trust and respect towards the UK in Dublin, Europe and Washington DC is the direct result of a botched Brexit and a contempt for the island of Ireland, the Irish diaspora in the US and its powerful lobby in the US Congress. Trump’s Northern Ireland envoy, Mick Mulvaney, has also warned Johnson.

A clever newspaper headline, “Britannia Waves the Rules”, captured the international law-breaking nature of the Johnson Government and exposed his attempts to preserve a dishonest, but plausible, narrative about the UK’s role in the world, post-Brexit.

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The UK is not exceptional and is not entitled by virtue or history to play a superior role in the world. Misunderstanding the mood of America is dangerous and could be costly.

Johnson is vulnerable. In his desperation for an economic lifeline with America, a consolation prize for dumping the most stable, prosperous, and successful single market in the world, he has failed to understand four important facts.

First, the US does not need a trade deal with the UK. Trump’s work is done. The President wants to wreck the EU and Brexit was a useful first step.

Second, there are more important trade deals for America to pursue. China, the EU, after the collapse of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), Asia Pacific, and updating the old NAFTA trade deal with Mexico and Canada, are judged to be more important than securing a deal with the UK.

Third, the Biden presidency will embrace the Obama doctrine, that the UK is only one of many US “special relationships”.

Fourth, Johnson has little understanding of the special place that everything Irish has in US politics, especially in Washington DC and the US Congress.

The Irish Lobby is formidable. Built on emotion, religion, struggle, history, immigration, famine, sentiment, freedom and independence, Joe Biden’s comments on the threat to the Good Friday Agreement are inspired by faith, family and a pride in America’s role in shaping and delivering the 1998 peace deal.

Brexit has led to a renewed Irish American interest in US politics and has heightened the importance of St Patrick’s Day events: the Irish Taoiseach is the only world leader guaranteed an annual meeting with the US President! This Irish influence has been overlooked by the British, ignored by the PM or dismissed as “shamrock diplomacy”.

Diplomacy around Brexit has been characteristically shambolic, with Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab being dispatched to dispel the threats to Ireland and to deny the possibility of a land border dividing Northern Ireland and the Republic. Post-Brexit relations between Britain, Ireland, and the US have plummeted.

Biden’s warning about the Good Friday Agreement becoming “a casualty of Brexit” and the Congress being ready to block any US-UK trade deal may herald much worse to come if the idea of a “United Ireland” gains further traction after this current debacle, and the US formally or informally favours the idea of the 32 counties being reunited. Tory attacks on Biden seem naive and ill-judged.

What could be described as Ireland’s soft power in the US has been ignored by the UK Government. Ireland has been treated with disdain and contempt. In the last US census, around 35 million Americans were of Irish descent and the various factions of this diaspora have close ties to the Irish American leadership, American politics and to a well-organised Irish American lobby in Washington.

Historically, the main issues that have concerned the lobby are support for Irish independence, the conflict in Northern Ireland and increasing quotas for Irish immigrant entry to the US.

More than six million people arrived in the US from Ireland between 1840 and 1900, and the largest majority settled in the northern and eastern urban areas. From troubled, hostile, discriminatory, and traumatic beginnings, the Irish quickly won power, influence and identity using the Catholic church, machine politics and trade union leadership.

Political interest in Ireland has ebbed and flowed over much of the last century but dramatically came to the fore when President Bill Clinton and the Congress took a positive role in the Good Friday Agreement and were instrumental in its success.

But Brexit has breathed new life into Irish America and reinvigorated Washington lobbying around the need to defend the Good Friday Agreement. A new ad hoc committee to protect the Good Friday Agreement was set up in 2019 comprising former members of congress, previous ambassadors to Ireland and the leaders of major Irish-American organisations.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has offered powerful support and said that if the Brexit deal undermined the Good Friday Agreement there would be “no chance” of a trade deal between the US and the UK. Not an idle threat as the Congress must ratify any deal done by the President – it’s worth noting that there is a strong Republic Party interest in the Irish question.

And last week, Democratic Congressman Richard Neal, a long-time advocate of Irish interests, added his weight to the issue. Chair of the influential Ways and Means Committee in Congress, he will oversee any post-Brexit trade deal between the US and UK.

Bi-partisan support for the Good Friday Agreement, no land border on the island of Ireland and continuing American interest in Ireland’s future should ring alarm bells for Boris Johnson and provide him with a stark warning. Whoever wins in November, the UK Government’s post-Brexit strategy is damaged under the water line. A Joe Biden victory could sink it.

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