UK trade deal cannot be entertained until Northern Ireland row resolved, says top US Democrat

Congressman Richard Neal says UK proposal to join North American trade pact presents ‘a new wrinkle’

A UK proposal to join a North American trade pact cannot be entertained until the EU-UK dispute over the Northern Ireland Brexit agreement is resolved, a top US Democrat has said.

Congressman Richard Neal, the chairman of an influential US congressional committee that approves the country's trade agreements, said the row over the Northern Ireland 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 British government this week proposed joining the USMCA, the trade deal signed by former president Donald Trump with Mexico and Canada last year following the renegotiation of the Nafta trade deal, after hopes for a bilateral trade agreement between the US and the UK receded.

“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.

He was speaking after meeting UK prime minister Boris Johnson on his visit to Washington.

The Democrat was “a bit surprised” that the UK “might be interested in joining a hemispheric trade agreement rather than a bilateral “ and said that it marks a “change in strategy” by the British. The proposal presented “a bit of a new wrinkle,” he said.

Mr Neal, who negotiated the USMCA, said that the British proposal was "very similar" to the bilateral trade proposal "because the major trading partner in it would be the United States. "

The matter was raised by the British during a visit by House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi to London last week.

Mr Neal said that Mr Johnson did not raise the UK proposal in their meeting.

During their meeting, Mr Neal said that the British prime minister "seemed to blame the European Union for the impasse over the Protocol."

He said that Ms Pelosi told Mr Johnson that Mr Neal had responsibility for trade issues in Congress and that he told the prime minister "that if there was any threat to the Good Friday Agreement - any jeopardy - there can be no trade agreement."

Mr Neal said he spoke with Mr Johnson about the success of the agreement and “reminded the prime minister about the arduous path that this process took” and how two generations of children had grown up on the island of Ireland “without knowing first hand of the Troubles.”

“I said that I thought that we needed a firm posture on making sure that there was no return to a hard border and he was emphatic there would be under no circumstances a return to a hard border,” he said.

Mr Neal said he was delighted President Biden voiced support for the Northern Ireland Protocol and the Belfast Agreement when he met Mr Johnson at the White House on Tuesday.

“As we now approach 23 years in on the Good Friday Agreement, we should be celebrating its achievement, not jeopardising it,” he said.

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is The Irish Times’s Public Affairs Editor and former Washington correspondent