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Washington must tread carefully on Britain’s NI protocol plans at G7 summit

Analysis: White House keen to maintain UK and EU unity in a coalition opposing Russian invasion of Ukraine

Exactly a year ago the G7 leaders’ summit came against a backdrop of reports that the US had been highly critical in diplomatic representations to the British government over the Northern Ireland protocol.

In the last week British plans regarding the protocol have again generated anxiety after Boris Johnson’s government in Westminster introduced legislation which would allow it to unilaterally disapply whole elements set out in the text.

The British plan was denounced by Irish-American politicians on Capitol Hill.

The majority leader in the senate Chuck Schumer warned that “rash, unilateral actions” that threatened international agreements would undermine support in Congress for any bilateral trade proposal.

The ad hoc group to protect the Belfast Agreement in the United States, which comprises former ambassadors and politicians as well as Irish American groups, accused the British of acting in bad faith and said the US could not be neutral.

However, the White House response seemed to be more muted.

What happens to the Northern Ireland protocol now?

It made clear it supported the protocol but recognised there were challenges in its implementation. It wanted to see a deal reached between Brussels and London and a close relationship between the two.

But when press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre was asked at a briefing whether the British move would become an impediment to US-UK trade dialogue or a potential future US-UK trade deal, she replied: “No, I don’t believe it will be.”

However, behind the scenes, Washington appears to have been unhappy at the British initiative and to have made its feelings known privately over recent days.

A senior Biden administration official told The Irish Times on Tuesday that it had raised its concerns over the planned British government legislation “at multiple levels” with the British.

Essentially, in the background the US was urging Johnson’s government not to move unilaterally on the protocol but to try to address any problems through dialogue.

Official US government records show that Northern Ireland was raised by two senior figures with UK ministers in the last week. It was also raised in conversations “at different levels of government”, according to the senior administration official.

US trade representative Ambassador Katherine Tai “underscored the importance of the UK and the EU continuing good faith negotiations (on the protocol) to find practical solutions to its implementation” in talks last week in Geneva with her British counterpart Anne-Marie Trevelyan, according to an official US readout.

The State Department said its secretary Anthony Blinken had discussed the protocol last week with the British foreign secretary Liz Truss. It said he also urged that “good faith negotiations” should take place between both parties “to reach a solution that preserves the gains of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement”.

The senior Biden administration official said the White House press secretary was correct in her comments last week in that there was no formal link between the new British legislation and the prospect of a trade deal being negotiated. However, the senior official said the current situation “did not create a conducive environment” for such an accord being reached.

In other words, while there were no trade talks under way at present the prospect of any such accord becoming a casualty of the rows over Northern Ireland remained real.

It also must be said that any US/UK trade deal would have to be approved by the US Congress — it cannot be introduced by the White House alone. Given the current sentiments on Capitol Hill. getting such an accord ratified could be problematic although Democrats may no longer be in control next year.

In dealing with the Northern Ireland issue and the potential conflict it could generate between the UK and the EU, Washington has to tread carefully at present. The big change for the US government since the G7 talks last year is that the Biden administration is seeking to hold together a coalition opposing the Russian invasion of Ukraine, of which the UK and EU are key components.

Last week former Trump national security adviser John Bolton argued that the strategic interest of the US should see it prioritise its relationship with the UK as a leader in Nato. Ireland could offer little in terms of security by comparison.

Bolton would have little sway in the current White House and the senior administration official who spoke to The Irish Times was unaware of this argument being made elsewhere.

The senior official said there had been a huge amount of effort by the Irish, British and the US in seeking to bring peace to Northern Ireland. Given all the other global problems, no one wanted to see the situation in Northern Ireland become more difficult.

The senior official said the US was working very closely with the EU and UK regarding the conflict in Ukraine, in terms of the application of sanctions as well as in response to coordination on security, economic and humanitarian assistance.

The official acknowledged that there was concern about creating or renewing existing tensions between UK and EU over Northern Ireland “when transatlantic unity and UK/EU unity is so critical to achieving our shared objectives in Ukraine”.