Ireland and Belfast agreement secure US support ahead of Brexit
America Letter: The US losing the UK’s voice in the EU could be Ireland's opportunity
Tánaiste Simon Coveney (centre) with members of the Friends of Ireland caucus inside the Ways and Means committee room in the US Capitol building in Washington on Thursday. Left, Irish ambassador to the US Dan Mulhall and, right, committee chairman Richard Neal. Photograph: Marty Katz
High on the wall, overseeing the work of the committee, is a portrait of Thomas Fitzsimons, its first chairman. Born in Ireland in 1741, he emigrated to Philadelphia and became a leading figure in the war against Britain, going on to build a successful political career.
The presence of the two historical figures gave a fitting context to this week’s meetings between Tánaiste Simon Coveney and Irish-American figures in the US capital.
If the British want to consider any type of trade agreement with the United States it is important that the soft border is maintained
On Thursday, Richard Neal, the chair of the Ways and Means committee, hosted Coveney along with members of the Friends of Ireland caucus and the committee in the meeting room. On the agenda was Brexit.
Concern among Irish-Americans about the potential impact of Brexit on the Belfast Agreement have spilled out into the open in recent weeks.
Following congressman Brendan Boyle’s introduction of a resolution to Congress opposing the imposition of a hard border in Ireland last week, 40 senior Irish-Americans, including five former US ambassadors, wrote to prime minister Theresa May and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, outlining their alarm at the direction of Brexit.
On Wednesday, at a reception to mark the 100th anniversary of the Dáil, Neal and Republican congressman Peter King warned that Britain’s hope of striking a trade deal with the US after Brexit could be on the rocks if the Belfast Agreement is compromised by Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union.
Post-Brexit, Ireland will be an important pro-US voice around the EU table
“If the British want to consider any type of trade agreement with the United States it is important that the soft border is maintained. What influence we have, we will use it,” King said.
Of more concern to London will be Neal’s warning that concerns about the Belfast Agreement will “weigh on his mind” as the committee considers a future trade deal.
As the chair of the Ways and Means committee, Neal, who was centrally involved in the Belfast Agreement 20 years ago, will have significant influence over the shape of any future US-UK trade agreement.
The committee’s quaint-sounding name belies its power. It is one of the most powerful committees in Congress, overseeing financial and taxation matters including trade.
This week, for example, it held its first hearing on getting access to presidential tax returns – a major source of concern for president Donald Trump.
Strong Irish diaspora
As well as his meetings with Congress, Coveney also spoke to senior figures within the Trump administration this week including secretary of state Mike Pompeo and acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, ensuring that Ireland’s concerns are understood within the administration.
Britain remains a significant player in Washington with a formidable diplomatic presence and military might that cannot be underestimated. But Ireland continues to benefit from a strong diaspora and powerful Irish-American lobby.
Nonetheless the future of the Irish-American lobby cannot be taken for granted, given the slowdown in Irish emigration to the US in recent decades.
That is one reason why the Tánaiste this week launched the government’s new Americas strategy, part of the Department of Foreign Affairs’s “Global Ireland” drive. Its aim is to inject a “new dynamism and ambition” into Ireland’s relationship with the US.
This involves beefing up Ireland’s presence in locations as diverse as Miami, Los Angeles, and Austin, increasing the number of high-level government visits to the US to between 30 and 40 a year, and launching a new diaspora policy with particular emphasis on young people.
Of perhaps most interest is the promise to “advance a strong, enduring partnership between the European Union and the United States”.
Post-Brexit, Ireland will be an important pro-US voice around the EU table, particularly in terms of taxation, regulation and the digital economy. Ireland and the UK, along with the Benelux and other northern countries, have traditionally been the most vocal proponents of free trade and regulatory restraint in the EU.
Britain’s imminent departure may tip the balance of the EU towards the more protectionist, and often anti-US, sentiment of large members like France. Given the huge levels of US foreign direct investment into Ireland, Irish officials and representatives of like-minded countries have become the de facto defenders of US interests when it comes to matters of trade and commerce in Brussels.
Ireland may welcome the current surge in interest in Washington in the Brexit debate. But with the imminent departure of the UK, the US may find it needs Ireland more than ever in the corridors of power in Europe.