The British government has sought to row back from a senior minister's suggestion that US president Joe Biden does not understand the issues surrounding the Northern Ireland protocol.
Mr Biden this week warned British prime minister Boris Johnson the Belfast Agreement must not be put at risk by the difficulties in reaching agreement on post-Brexit trade rules between the UK and European Union.
UK agriculture secretary George Eustice later claimed that Mr Biden did not "fully appreciate" the details of the dispute over the Northern Ireland protocol and that the president was just listening to Ireland and the EU.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin, who is in New York for United Nations meetings, responded by saying there was a clear line of communication between Ireland and the Biden administration on Brexit and "they take it seriously because obviously successive US governments have invested significantly in the peace process".
Mr Martin also said: “Anybody who suggests that President Biden doesn’t get Northern Ireland or understand it is wrong. He understands it very well.”
Mr Johnson said in Washington that he disagreed with Mr Eustice, adding that Mr Biden had not raised the issue of the protocol during their meeting at the White House on Tuesday. "I don't think it came up at all. We had a meeting of over 90 minutes and it wasn't raised," he said.
Answering reporters’ questions before the meeting with Mr Johnson, the president said he felt “very strongly” about the protocol and about the Belfast Agreement. “We spent an enormous amount of time and effort, the United States, it was a major bipartisan effort. And I would not at all like to see – nor, I might add would many of my Republican colleagues like to see – a change in the Irish accords, the end result having a closed border in Ireland,” he said.
A Downing Street readout of the meeting said Mr Johnson had updated the president on the protocol but The Irish Times understands that Mr Biden did not raise the issue and it was not discussed during the meeting.
Mr Johnson was on Capitol Hill on Wednesday meeting House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and his government has been engaged in an energetic campaign to persuade members of Congress that the protocol must be renegotiated.
Meanwhile, Democrat Congressman Richard Neal, the chairman of an influential US congressional committee that approves trade agreements, said a UK proposal to join a North American trade pact could not be entertained until the EU-UK dispute over the Northern Ireland Brexit agreement was resolved.
He said the row over the protocol must be resolved, offering no threat to the Belfast Agreement, before the UK government’s proposal to join the trade pact between the US, Mexico and Canada could be considered.
“The point here is not so much the trade agreement because I think that most of us believe that a trade agreement of some sort with the UK would be desirable, but I think until the issue of the protocol and Brexit are resolved, offering no threat to the success of the Good Friday Agreement, I don’t see how they can be entertained,” Mr Neal told The Irish Times.
Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney will meet Ms Pelosi in Washington today with issues affecting Northern Ireland and the implementation of the EU-UK Brexit agreement high on the agenda.
Mr Coveney will also meet Democrat and Republican senators and members of Congress including the Friends of Ireland caucus, with Brexit to feature prominently in those talks.