Coveney and Sefcovic to brief Washington caucus amid Brexit concerns

This follows Britain announcing intention to extend grace period for post-Brexit checks on goods entering the North from Britain

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney and EU commissioner Maros Sefcovic will brief the Friends of Ireland caucus on Capitol Hill on Wednesday. File photograph: iStock

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney and EU commissioner Maros Sefcovic will brief the Friends of Ireland caucus on Capitol Hill on Wednesday. File photograph: iStock

 

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney and EU commissioner Maros Sefcovic are scheduled to brief the Friends of Ireland caucus on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, amid concern in Washington about Britain’s decision to delay the implementation of a key part of the Brexit agreement.

The inclusion in the briefing of the European Commission vice-president – who is charged with overseeing the trade deal agreed with Britain last year – is an indication of a concerted effort by Brussels to highlight concerns about Britain’s commitment to the Brexit deal, at the highest levels in Washington.

The Friends of Ireland caucus is an influential bipartisan group of Congress members which was instrumental in securing US political support of the peace process in the 1980s and 1990s.

It is chaired by congressman Richard Neal, a Massachusetts Democrat who also chairs the Ways and Means committee which has power over trade deals – including any future UK-US agreement. Mr Neal and House speaker Nancy Pelosi have previously warned that a trade deal with Britain is contingent upon the Belfast Agreement being upheld.

Britain announced last week its intention to extend the grace period for post-Brexit checks on some goods entering Northern Ireland from Britain until October 1st – a move that has alarmed Dublin and Brussels.

Mr Coveney said that he “strongly advised” Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis against the unilateral decision to extend the grace period, and Mr Sefcovic has said that Brussels will initiate legal action “very soon”.

Wednesday’s briefing will take place a week before the annual St Patrick’s Day celebrations, traditionally an opportunity for the Government to highlight issues of concern to Washington.

Belfast Agreement support

Taoiseach Micheál Martin is expected to update president Joe Biden on the latest post-Brexit developments during his virtual bilateral call next Wednesday.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said last week that Mr Biden was “unequivocal” about his support for the Belfast Agreement, in response to a question about Britain’s move to postpone customs checks.

“It has been the bedrock of peace, stability and prosperity for all the people of Northern Ireland,” she said of the peace agreement.

Mr Coveney spoke to members of Congress last week by phone, following the renewed tensions over the Northern Ireland protocol. Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis and the British embassy in Washington have also been in contact with senior figures on the Hill about the issue, outlining the impact the customs issue is having on practical life in Northern Ireland, and their commitment to ultimately putting in place measures to maintain the flow of goods.

Separately, Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill and Sinn Féin MP John Finucane briefed the ad-hoc committee on the Belfast Agreement on Tuesday. The US-based committee was established during the Brexit negotiations to highlight issues pertaining to Northern Ireland. British officials have also addressed the group in recent days.

Ms O’Neill and First Minister Arlene Foster will not travel to Washington this St Patrick’s Day as has been customary for the first minister and deputy first minister, due to the Covid pandemic.

The new focus on Northern Ireland in Washington comes as the Friends of Sinn Féin in the United States are due to run an ad in the Washington Post and New York Times on Wednesday calling for a referendum on a United Ireland. “Let the People have their Say,” the half-page advertisement states. “The Good Friday [Belfast] Agreement provides for a referendum on Irish Unity. It is for the people to determine their future.”

The ad, which will also run in the Irish Echo, appeals to the Irish government to “promote and plan for unity.” “As Americans, we call upon our government and public representatives to urge the British Government to set the date for the Unity Referendum.”

The ad campaign is supported by a number of Irish-American groups, including the Ancient Order of Hibernians, the Irish American Unity Conference and the James Connolly Irish American Labor Coalition.