US president Joe Biden is "unequivocal" about his support for the Belfast Agreement, the White House has said, following a unilateral move by London to extend the grace period for post-Brexit checks on some goods entering Northern Ireland from Britain.
Asked by the Irish Times in Washington about the dispute that has prompted Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney to suggest the UK "cannot be trusted" on the Northern Ireland protocol, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said: "President Biden has been unequivocal about his support for the Good Friday Agreement.
“It has been the bedrock of peace, stability and prosperity for all the people of Northern Ireland.”
She continued: “We also welcome co-operation between our British and Irish partners on the Northern Irish protocol and the recent strong statements on these governments’ full commitment to the Good Friday Agreement.”
London has been accused by Brussels of breaching an international agreement for a second time, by extending a grace period on a range of checks on trade between the North and Britain. The move has sparked tensions between London and Dublin.
Mr Biden has previously intervened in the Brexit debate, warning that the Belfast Agreement cannot “become a casualty of Brexit”.
Last year he said: “Any trade deal between the US and UK must be contingent upon respect for the Agreement and preventing the return of a hard border.”
The UK is seeking to strike a bilateral trade deal with the US, but several senior members of Congress have warned that a deal will only be agreed if the Belfast Agreement is upheld.
Earlier on Thursday, the US announced it was suspending tariffs on a range of UK exports, including Scottish whisky, which were hit by US tariffs as part of an ongoing dispute between air manufacturers Boeing and Airbus. Asked if the decision to suspend the tariffs meant that a similar decision is imminent regarding tariffs on EU products, Ms Psaki said there was no update.
Asked about the White House plans for St Patrick’s Day, Ms Psaki said plans are under way, and she highlighted the president’s own Irish-American heritage.
“The President has a special place in his heart for the Irish, as do I, and I expect certainly that we will have more details to share soon, given, as you said, it is two weeks away. Of course, any recognition of St Patrick’s Day would look different from past years, but we will certainly mark the day and will have more to say on it as we get closer.”
The Taoiseach is not travelling to Washington this year for the annual St Patrick’s Day celebrations due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Negotiations are under way to hold some form of virtual meeting on March 17th to mark the occasion.
Earlier on Thursday, Mr Coveney said he “strongly advised” Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis against the UK’s unilateral decision to extend the grace period for post-Brexit checks on some goods entering Northern Ireland from Britain.
Mr Coveney said that if the UK could not be trusted to stick to an agreement and instead took unilateral action, then the EU was left with no option but to take legal action. “It’s not what we want, but it is where the UK is driving us,” he said.
“If the UK cannot be trusted because they took unilateral action, then they leave the EU with no option,” he told RTÉ’s Morning Ireland.
But the British side insisted Brussels and Dublin had been informed in advance about the action the UK was taking.
Mr Lewis on Thursday defended the UK government’s move and, in turn, said he had been “disappointed” with the response from Dublin.
He rejected any suggestion that London’s decision had caused tensions between the two governments, adding: “I don’t see our actions this week as an escalation, just a very sensible, pragmatic approach and something we’ve been talking to the EU about for some weeks.
“We hoped that we would have got an agreement with the EU on them [grace periods] before now, because of the timing issue.”
He said officials had talked to the EU earlier this week, and he and the UK’s chief negotiator, Lord David Frost, had spoken to Mr Coveney on Wednesday, with Lord Frost talking to EU Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic on Wednesday evening.
“This is developing and building on the work they’ve been doing with Michael Gove as well, so there’s a continuity of approach from us and, as I said to Simon [Coveney] yesterday, we want to continue working positively on this.”
Under the agreement between the EU and UK to avoid Border checks on the island of Ireland, some goods are subject to inspection when they pass between Britain and Northern Ireland. This has been criticised by unionists and some Conservatives in London.
However, more stringent checks were due to be introduced when a “grace period” ended later this month. The British government now says it will extend the grace period until October.
Mr Coveney said that before Lord Frost, who has taken over from Michael Gove as lead negotiator for the UK, had even had his first meeting with Mr Sefcovic, the EU’s lead negotiator, the UK government had made its announcement. “To say this was disrespectful is an understatement,” said Mr Coveney.
For Mr Sefcovic to be “undermined” in this way was “deeply unhelpful,” he added.
The UK was making decisions based on the politics of Westminster and had acted unilaterally in what was clearly a breach of protocol, said Mr Coveney.
Ten days ago the UK had committed to implementing the protocol, but now there was a new person in charge and had taken a different direction, leaving the EU with no option but to look at their legal options, he said.
“That is why the EU is now looking at legal options and legal action which means a much more formalised and rigid negotiation process as opposed to a process of partnership where you try to solve the problems together.”
UK prime minister Boris Johnson had outlined his concern about the trading of certain products between Britain and Northern Ireland during a telephone conversation with Taoiseach Micheál Martin earlier this week about Ireland and England’s joint World Cup 2030 bid. But Mr Coveney said he was not aware of Mr Johnson giving any indication of the unilateral action.
There are “voices” in Northern Ireland who “don’t want a protocol, they want trouble”, Ireland’s EU commissioner Maireád McGuinness told the same programme on Thursday morning.
Ms McGuinness said trust was required in talks, but that was difficult when one party left the room “to do their own thing”.
She said the UK was negotiating with itself rather than with the EU and there needed to be respect on both sides.
Businesses in Northern Ireland needed solutions; “we’re working on it,” she said.
The UK’s behaviour was not appropriate and had to be “called out”, said Ms McGuinness. It would also raise questions about global Britain and how they would behave in the future with other global partners, she said.
An agreement for an extension had been reached last December after lengthy negotiations, added Ms McGuinness, but there were voices in Northern Ireland who didn’t want a solution: “They want trouble.”
The European Commission wanted to address the problems, which had been created by Brexit. "We're trying to resolve a problem we didn't create, it was caused by Brexit," she said.
The political realities of the UK’s unilateral action will have to be separated from the practical realities being faced on the ground by Northern Ireland businesses, she said.
“We will never get the right solution if the two parties don’t agree on a way forward,” said Ms McGuinness.
Talks would continue, she said, but the atmosphere was going to be very different now. “We will be the adults in the room.”
The EU angrily objected to the move by Britain. Brussels on Wednesday night threatened to resort to legal action over what it said was the second time the UK had sought to breach international law in relation to the special arrangements put in place for the North.