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Row erupts as US accused of trying to ‘bully’ UK over Northern Ireland

Evening Standard logo Evening Standard 20/05/2022 Nicholas Cecil
US-BRITAIN-DIPLOMACY © AFP via Getty Images US-BRITAIN-DIPLOMACY

America was accused on Friday of trying to “bully” Britain as a trans-Atlantic Brexit bust-up erupted over Northern Ireland’s trading arrangements.

The row ignited after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in Washington that the US Congress will not support a free trade deal with the UK if the Government persists with “deeply concerning” plans to “unilaterally discard” the Northern Ireland Protocol.

However, former Tory Cabinet minister John Redwood accused her of “idle threats”, stressing that “a majority of UK voters do not accept bullying from abroad”.

The clash is another sign of the diplomatic as well as economic damage being caused by Brexit despite claims during the 2016 referendum campaign that it would open the door to Britain booming with a swift free trade deal with the US.

Theresa May’s former chief-of-staff Lord Barwell tweeted on the trans-Atlantic row: “Not just our European friends that are very concerned about this government’s apparent willingness to renege on commitments it has made”

Senior DUP MP Sammy Wilson tweeted: “As far as people who understand Northern Ireland go, @SpeakerPelosi is at the ‘back of the queue,’” referring to Barack Obama saying when president that Britain would be at the back of the queue for a trade deal with the US if it quit the EU.

The Protocol, which effectively treats Northern Ireland in many ways as being in the EU single market, was agreed by Boris Johnson’s government as part of a Brexit deal with the European Union.

But the UK government is now seeking to alter it, as it creates a border down the Irish Sea as warned before the deal was signed, and is accusing Brussels of a lack of flexibility to make changes which it argues were always envisaged under the arrangements.

Foreign Secretary Liz Truss this week announced plans to legislate to override parts of the Brexit withdrawal treaty the UK struck with the EU, to be able to unilaterally change the protocol.

But Ms Pelosi warned: “It is deeply concerning that the United Kingdom is now seeking to unilaterally discard the Northern Ireland Protocol. Negotiated agreements like the Protocol preserve the important progress and stability forged by the Good Friday Accords, which continue to enjoy strong bipartisan and bicameral support in the United States Congress.

“As I have stated in my conversations with the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and Members of the House of Commons, if the United Kingdom chooses to undermine the Good Friday Accords, the Congress cannot and will not support a bilateral free trade agreement with the United Kingdom.”

She added: “Respectful of the will of the British people and of Brexit, I urge constructive, collaborative and good-faith negotiations to implement an agreement that upholds peace.

“The children of Northern Ireland, who have never known the bloody conflict and do not want to go back, deserve a future free of the violence where all may reach their fulfillment.”

However, Mr Redwood responded, tweeting on Friday morning: “Nancy Pelosi should talk to Unionists in Northern Ireland about the damage the EU is doing to the Northern Ireland Protocol .


Video: ‘No option off the table’: UK continues row with EU over Northern Ireland deal (Evening Standard)

UP NEXT
UP NEXT

“It is the EU not the UK that has undermined it and led to the break down of the Assembly. UK legislation is needed to repair the EU damage.”

The comments from Ms Pelosi are a reminder of the ongoing interest in Northern Ireland at the highest levels in Washington, amid political instability following the Assembly election which saw Sinn Fein emerge as the largest party.

The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) is currently blocking the re-establishment of Stormont’s power-sharing institutions in protest at the protocol, which has created economic barriers on trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Irish premier Micheal Martin will hold talks with political leaders in Belfast on Friday amid the ongoing deadlock at Stormont over the protocol.

The Taoiseach will also meet a range of business representatives on a visit that will be dominated by the political crisis over the contentious post-Brexit trading arrangements.

The Taoiseach’s visit comes in the wake of the UK Government’s controversial move to act unilaterally to scrap parts of the protocol.

While welcoming Ms Truss’s announcement on Tuesday to legislate to override parts of the Brexit withdrawal treaty it struck with the EU, the DUP has said it will not immediately lift its powersharing boycott.

It said it will instead adopt a “graduated and cautious” approach to re-engaging with the devolved institutions depending on the progress of the legislation.

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has said the party needs assurances over removal the Irish Sea trade border in the form of actions, not words.

Sinn Fein, which after emerging as the largest party at the recent Assembly election is in line to the take the first minister’s job if powersharing returns, has accused the DUP of holding society in Northern Ireland to ransom by denying it a functioning executive.

Ahead of his meeting with the Taoiseach, Sir Jeffrey insisted operation of the Stormont institutions would not have the consent of unionism while the protocol remained in place.

“Powersharing only works with the consent of unionists and nationalists,” he said.

“For two and half years every unionist MLA and MP in Northern Ireland has been voicing opposition to the protocol. There must be new arrangements if we are to move forward.

“The time for denial is over. The protocol has failed. The day London, Dublin and Brussels decided to move ahead without Unionist support was a mistake.”

On Thursday, Sinn Fein’s Conor Murphy said there was no reason why an Executive and Assembly should not be formed at Stormont while the UK Government and the EU resolve issues over the protocol.

Mr Murphy, who continues as Stormont Finance Minister despite the impasse, said he currently has £421million which he cannot spend because the devolved power-sharing institutions are not functioning.

“There is no reason why the Assembly and the Executive can’t function,” he said.

“The DUP have decided to shut that down in order to engage with the British Government on the protocol.

“They can do that with the Assembly and the Executive functioning, and the only thing they are doing is punishing people here.

“There is no reason to delay that any longer than tomorrow, it should be up and running.”

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