Friends of Ireland Chairman, Congressman Richard Neal
By Ray O’Hanlon
With a week to go before St. Patrick’s Day, Irish America, both its people and its politicians, are being enlisted in the effort to preserve the Good Friday Agreement and protect the post-Brexit Irish Sea border protocol.
That agreed protocol, which covers the movement of goods between Britain and the North, is causing a storm of negative reaction among Northern Ireland unionists even as the British government moves to rework it.
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Taoiseach Micheál Martin is due to meet with President Joe Biden in a virtual format on St. Patrick’s Day, but that will now follow other significant transatlantic talks that have been taking place against the backdrop of rising tensions over the Irish Sea arrangement.
The Irish Times reported today that Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney has been talking with both EU Commissioner Maros Sefcovic and the Friends of Ireland caucus on Capitol Hill “amid concern in Washington about Britain’s decision to delay the implementation of a key part of the Brexit agreement.”
The Times reported that the inclusion in the briefing of the European Commission vice-president – who is charged with overseeing the trade deal agreed with Britain last year – is an indication of a concerted effort by Brussels to highlight concerns about Britain’s commitment to the Brexit deal at the highest levels in Washington.
The Times report noted that the Friends of Ireland caucus is an influential bi-partisan group of congress members which was instrumental in securing U.S. political support of the peace process in the 1980s and 1990s.
And the report stated: “It is chaired by Congressman Richard Neal, a Massachusetts Democrat who also chairs the Ways and Means Committee which has power over trade deals – including any future UK-US agreement.
“Britain announced last week to unilaterally extend the grace period for post-Brexit checks on some goods entering Northern Ireland from Britain until October 1st – a move that has alarmed Dublin and Brussels.
“Mr. Coveney said that he ‘strongly advised’ Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis against the unilateral decision to extend the grace period, and Mr Sefcovic has said that Brussels will initiate legal action ‘very soon.'”
Meanwhile, North Deputy First Minister and Sinn Féin’s North leader, Michelle O’Neill, has held talks with the U.S. Ad Hoc Committee on Good Friday Agreement.
The committee was set up several years ago as a bipartisan group of Irish American community leaders dedicated to supporting and protecting the Good Friday Agreement. It is chaired by former congressmen James Walsh, a Republican, and Bruce Morrison, a Democrat.
After the meeting O’Neill said: “I met today, alongside John Finucane MP, with members of the US Ad Hoc committee on the Good Friday Agreement, a bipartisan committee which reflects the views of a broad swathe of Irish-American opinion.
“Irish America played a key role in the development of our peace process over many years. I value the continued support from Irish America for the Good Friday Agreement and its calls for its full implementation.
“This support is all the more vital at present given the ongoing attempts to undermine the Agreement and frustrate its full outworking.”
The ramped up discussions come as Sinn Féin has taken out ads today in the New York Times, Washington Post, Irish Voice and Irish Echo, urging a referendum on Irish unity.