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Brexit battle lines emerging on Capitol Hill

Fr. Sean McManus has condemned what he describes as an “appalling and irresponsible letter”


By Ray O’Hanlon

The battle over Brexit and the hoped for post-Brexit U.S./UK trade deal was taking clearer shape this week with a group of U.S. senators, led by Tom Cotton of Arkansas, pledging “unwavering support for the United Kingdom as it exits the European Union in the coming months.”

The pledge was contained in a letter to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson signed by Cotton and 44 other senators, all of them Republican.

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Members of the House of Representatives, from both parties, have pledged to block any post-Brexit trade deal if the result of British withdrawal in any way damages the Good Friday peace agreement, and/or leads to the return to a hard border on the island of Ireland.

The Cotton letter does not mention Ireland.

Meanwhile, reports are pointing to ramped up pressure on Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and the Irish government to relinquish its demand for a border backstop provision that would avoid a return to a hard frontier.

The BBC, in a report Tuesday, said that EU officials “have spotted what they say is the conscious UK strategy of trying to isolate and pressurize Taoiseach Leo Varadkar.”

The officials said they wanted to send a message from the rest of the EU27 of absolute support for Dublin (See editorial, Page 13).

Absolute support in Brussels might not be replicated in Washington as indicated by the Cotton letter, this despite the fact that the U.S. is a guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement.

Cotton has been hostile to Irish concerns in the past. Late last year he blocked congressional approval of extending the E-3 visa program to Ireland.

Support for Ireland that would include blocking any post-Brexit trade deal is more concentrated in the House and is bipartisan within the ranks of the Friends of Ireland caucus.

The Cotton letter to Johnson states in part: “We write to congratulate you on your election as prime minister. We also want to assure you and the British people of our continued, unwavering support for the special relationship between our two countries as Britain leaves the European Union.

“In 2016, the British people voted to leave the European Union. While we don’t necessarily agree among ourselves about that decision, we recognize and respect your nation’s sovereign right to determine its future. It is for your government to decide the terms of a Brexit deal with the EU. In your victory speech last month, you pledged ‘to get Brexit done on October the 31st,’ a date just around the corner. We wouldn’t presume to recommend the right policy, but we will support whatever course Britain takes.

“First, if Britain leaves the EU with no deal, we will work with our administration, your government, and our friends in the EU to minimize disruptions in critical matters such as international air travel, financial transactions, and the shipment of medicine, food, and other vital supplies.

“Second, irrespective of how Brexit occurs, we recommit to the NATO security alliance and the ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence partnership. We also will advocate for a new bilateral trade agreement, as early as your Brexit terms would allow, that reflects the centuries of open commerce between our nations.”

The line, “irrespective of how Brexit occurs” would seem to be indicate a lack of concern with regard to how a no-deal Brexit in particular could adversely affect Ireland.

Fr. Sean McManus of the Washington, D.C-based Irish National Caucus sees more than just a lack of concern, in a statement describing the letter as “in effect, an anti-Catholic and anti-Irish declaration signed by 44 other Senators.”

And he additionally sees the hand of the British embassy in Washington at work.

McManus said in his statement in part: “The British Embassy has been busy. Not since the MacBride Principles have we seen such on assault on the U.S. Congress. Then, the British Embassy tried to block the MacBride Principles from making sure U.S. dollars would not subsidize anti-Catholic discrimination in Northern Ireland.

“Now the British Embassy - because of Boris Johnson’s irresponsibility - is attempting to stop the campaign to make sure the United States will not subsidize the destruction of the Good Friday Agreement and the Irish Peace Process, which the United States and former British prime minister Tony Blair did so much to bring about.”

McManus said that the embassy “has been forced to recruit Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) to lead this deplorable charge.”

He continued: “He (Cotton) has co-opted 44 other U.S. Senators to sign his appalling and irresponsible letter to British prime minister Boris Johnson, pledging to 'support whatever course Britain takes’ even, apparently, if that course destroys the Good Friday Agreement and Irish Peace Process, as many fear.”

Fr. McManus added: ''Many responsible people in the EU, Ireland, north and south, and in the Unites States have expressed real and deep concern about the dangers a 'no-deal Brexit’ and the return of a 'hard' Border across the face of Ireland can do.

“But Senator Cotton and the 44 blithely ignore all this, never even mentioning it. In effect, this appalling letter will be seen by many Irish Americans as both anti-Catholic and anti-Irish, no matter the intention of the 45 signers, or that some have Irish names, or may, indeed, be Catholic.

“The letter demonstrates, in the context, either profound ignorance or indifference to the danger posed to both parts of Ireland, which overwhelmingly is opposed to Brexit, hard or soft. What were the other 44 Senators thinking?

“I hope these 45 Senators will now clearly and unequivocally state their support of the Irish Peace Process and the Good Friday Agreement."