Pence’s Brexit backing catches Dublin unawares
US vice-president’s support for British position on EU talks unexpected
US vice-president Mike Pence leaves for London on Wednesday following a visit to Ireland that did not go entirely to plan. Pence made an unexpected intervention during his press conference with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar on Brexit that is far from helpful as Ireland enters a crucial period in the those negotiations.
Following a meeting and lunch at Farmleigh, Mr Pence spoke at length about his Irish heritage and the bonds between the two countries. But in pre-scripted comments he made it clear what side the Trump administration is on when it comes to Britain’s imminent departure from the European Union.
“The United States supports the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union in Brexit,” he said.
While he said that Brexit needs to respect the Belfast Agreement, he added: “As the deadline for Brexit approaches we urge Ireland and the European Union, as well, to negotiate in good faith with prime minister Johnson, and work to reach an agreement that respects the United Kingdom’s sovereignty.”
In many ways his comments are to be expected. US president Donald Trump and senior members of the administration such as national security advisor John Bolton are ardent Brexit supporters, sharing the rejection of multilateralism that underpins the world view of many Brexiteers.
But the intervention is unhelpful, particularly as Pence departs for London where he is due to meet Boris Johnson in the coming days. Privately, Irish officials welcomed the fact that Pence’s last-minute change of schedule meant he would visit Ireland before London, thus allowing Dublin to set out its stall before the vice-president meets Johnson.
But Pence’s comments shows the limits of Irish-American bonhomie when it comes to the Trump administration. Despite the warm welcome afforded the vice-president by President Michael D Higgins and Varadkar when it comes to Brexit the Trump administration’s support is limited.
In reality, Pence’s stance is unlikely to have an impact on the leverage Ireland has on Capitol Hill when it comes to the Belfast Agreement. Ultimately, Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosihas the power to block a US-UK trade deal if the Belfast Agreement is jeopardised. Consequently, Irish officials in Washington are likely to resume their efforts to maintain congressional support for the Irish position as the Brexit process continues.
Pence’s comments about Shannon, and enhanced security co-operation between the US and Ireland, may also have been uncomfortable for the Government, given the controversy over the airport’s use by the US military. But in other ways the visit passed without incident.
The controversy over Pence’s stance on same-sex marriage was a side story during his visit and had largely been addressed when he welcomed Varadkar and his partner to his house in March in Washington. Controversy, however, surrounded Pence’s decision to use Trump’s Doonbeg golfcourse as a base during his visit here. Several US media outlets noted the distance between Shannon and Dublin. Moreover, the vice-president and his advisors were bombarded with questions on the ethics of staying in the president’s hotel during the trip.
Pence said the choice was “logical” as Doonbeg could accommodate the “unique footprint” that comes with the trip. “We checked it with the State Department. They approved us,” he said. But for critics of the Trump administration, the decision was another example of the many conflicts of interest that characterises the presidency of Donald Trump.