Congressman Richard Neal being greeted by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar with Speaker Pelosi looking on. RollingNews.ie photo.
By Dr. Francis Costello
“Don’t even think about it” is the message House Speaker Nancy Pelosi delivered with special emphasis in her recent visits to London and Dublin, this if any UK government seeks a special U.S.-UK trade deal without the inclusion of the Northern Ireland Backstop to prevent the re-instatement of a hard border when Britain exist the European Union.
One colleague in particular who accompanied Pelosi was Congressman Richard Neal who, as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, holds a particular role that Boris Johnson, the new British Prime Minister, might pay attention to given his determination to exit the EU without a deal if Brussels continues to hold the line on the Backstop.
While Winston Churchill once pondered why the “dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone” perplexed British politics - oddly as if Britain had nothing to do with the island’s partition or distress -Johnson and the new British government now face the added formidable obstacle of U.S. congressional opposition, in addition to the weight of its problems with a European Union standing firm so far as the island of Ireland is concerned.
It is Rep. Neal’s own stated position that the inclusion of the Backstop under any withdrawal agreement is fundamental to the protection of Strand Two of the Good Friday Agreement by guaranteeing there will be no hard border in Ireland under any circumstances.
Neal knows the Backstop is a protocol the Irish government worked hard to secure. Neal himself also worked long and hard to secure to Good Friday Agreement which continues to have the support of both U.S. political parties as an international agreement in perhaps a rare example of congressional bipartisanship.
Unlike Johnson, Neal is also aware from his own direct observation that since the 1998 agreement “the 310-mile border has been frictionless and indivisible. More than 30,000 people cross the border each day without incident. There is free movement of goods and services. After so much progress, and twenty one years of peace, thoughts of returning to the bad old days of checkpoints, roadblocks, and customs patrols are simply unacceptable.”
This should matter to Boris Johnson because it matters to Representative Neal and Speaker Pelosi.
In the simplest Queen’s English the reality is regardless of any empty promise from President Trump about “a great trade deal” if Britain leaves the EU without a Backstop no U.S.-UK trade deal will get past the House Ways and Means Committee.
Simon Hoare, chairman of the House of Commons Northern Ireland Select Committee, is indeed correct in stating that the position taken by Johnson represents “a very, very dangerous step.” It is indeed dangerous, and far beyond trade matters alone, for both Britain and Ireland.
Both the Irish Garda Commissioner Drew Harris, and the former PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton, have said that any physical infrastructure or fortifications on the Irish border post-Brexit would threaten peace and security.
“A hard border from a policing perspective would not be a good outcome because it creates a focus and target,” Hamilton said.
It is a view also echoed by a recent report by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
Neal and Pelosi are by no means alone given the vast majority of Democrats and Republicans alike who continue to value the key role that Senator George Mitchell played in the peace process, while backed by President Clinton, to secure a historic deal that helped bring a peaceful end to the conflict. That effort saved the lives of members of the police and security forces, as well as ordinary citizens on all sides.
It is indeed a perverse and dangerous irony that Boris Johnson, who sees himself as student of history and one fond of quoting Winston Churchill, has, unlike Churchill, chosen to place party over country.
By his reckless behavior towards stability in Northern Ireland, and his threatening of the British economy with a No Deal Brexit, Johnson has cravenly catered to extremists offering the politics of darkness.
In the end, it may take the actions of friends to Britain and Ireland alike in the U.S. Congress to steer Britain off the rocks of moral, political and economic disaster by focusing the British government’s attention on the reality that any attempt to undermine the peace, and the prospects for a prosperous future for all in Ireland, will not stand.
Dr. Francis Costello is an historian who worked in the peace process as a member of the Clinton administration, as Chief of Staff to Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy II, and advisor to Boston Mayor Ray Flynn. He resides in Belfast.