Congressman Richard Neal
By Dr. Francis Costello
The high-powered U.S. congressional delegation led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to the North this week represents the most significant American official visit here in years.
That she is joined by Rep. Richard Neal, chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, a man with deep roots in County Down, makes it all the more important in the midst of the ongoing current uncertainties over Brexit.
Neal’s Ways and Means Committee will oversee any future, post-Brexit, trade deal between the U.S. and UK. Last month, he made it clear by letter to Prime Minister Theresa May the negative consequences of a hard Border in Ireland and likewise if there is any threat to the Good Friday Agreement caused by Brexit.
This week, joined by Speaker Pelosi and a number of his colleagues, Neal delivered that message in London before arriving on these shores in person.
To know Richie Neal as I have since his days as a popular Mayor of Springfield, Massachusetts is to know he doesn’t pull any punches.
Mild and engaging by nature, he also direct in his approach to issues he cares about. Jobs and educational funding for his district remain paramount. But true to his heritage as an Irish American with a proven interest in building peace for all in Northern Ireland, so is making sure the gains achieved under the Good Friday Agreement are not derailed by Brexit.
Before the Brexit vote in 2016, as co-leader of the Friends of Ireland in the U.S. Congress, Neal stressed that progress made in trying to promote more U.S. investment by implementing the twelve percent corporation tax would mean little if Northern Ireland became separated from the European Union and more meaningful cross border cooperation within the island.
Right now, Richard Neal may be one of the reasons for ensuring that dislodging the North from Europe does not happen.
As a university lecturer he also concerned that “the damage that would be done would not be economic alone.’’
At the heart of that concern is the need to ensure that the human rights protections under the Good Friday Agreement are also not scuttled by Brexit.
Boston software entrepreneur John Cullinane - an architect of investment projects for Northern Ireland and the border counties funded largely by U.S. government funds under the International Fund for Ireland, and an advisor to Nancy Pelosi - this week underscored his own faith in Chairman Neal as someone knowledgeable and well versed in the history of these islands, and committed to using his important role to use his influence to help thwart the “the madness that would drive job creating companies away whether they be on the Island of Ireland or in Britain itself by Brexit, something that too many to not seem to understand.”
Added Cullinane: “Business likes stability, whether in Springfield Mass., Belfast or Derry. And I am hoping that Richard Neal, given his leading role in Congress, will be able to help drive this point home to the British government if they come looking for special trade deals with the U.S.”
James Lyons - another friend of Neal’s, who served as Special Advisor to President Clinton for Economic Initiatives in Northern Ireland and the border counties, as well as being U.S. observer to the International Fund for Ireland - also takes comfort that Neal, with his greater level of influence, will be able to lighten the impact of Brexit on the North.
He notes that Northern Ireland will “clearly suffer” by losing its ability to sell itself also as the rest of Ireland will as an “EU gateway.”
Brian O’Dwyer, always close to the scene on the ground in the North, and also among the most effective in leveraging influence on vital issues, stresses that Neal’s “stated position” on the inherent obligation of the U.S. to protect against the undermining of the Good Friday Agreement “are not idle words” and that Neal “has made repeated visits to the border.”
With Neal “now in charge” of the Ways and Means Committee, O’Dwyer emphasizes that this is where any post-Brexit proposed British trade deal with the U.S. “gets its first hearing.”
The strong wind that has blown across the Atlantic to Downing Street, and hopefully to enough members of the House of Commons with any sense, shows that U.S. congressional leaders on a bi- partisan basis are intent upon protecting the economic, human rights, and political gains enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement.
This means Britain’s acceptance that it is in their own interest to honor its commitments to Ireland – all of it.
Dr. Costello is a Belfast-based consultant assisting U.S. and Irish companies and is also the author of several books on Irish history. He served in the Clinton Administration.