US congressman warns a future US-UK trade deal is in the balance

Richard Neal condemns decision to extend grace period for customs checks between NI and Britain

US congressman Richard Neal: “This a reminder that there can be no disruption to the Good Friday Agreement, period.” Photograph: Getty Images

US congressman Richard Neal: “This a reminder that there can be no disruption to the Good Friday Agreement, period.” Photograph: Getty Images

 

US congressman Richard Neal has warned that a future US-UK trade deal is in the balance as he condemned Britain’s decision to postpone the implementation of a key part of the Brexit agreement.

Speaking to The Irish Times in his first public comments since London’s decision to extend the grace period for custom checks between Northern Ireland and Britain, the Massachusetts Democrat described the move as “arbitrary and capricious”.

“There seems to be a pattern that is developing in the aftermath of Brexit,” he said, referring to Britain’s unilateral decision to delay the introduction of checks by six months, in breach of the agreement.

“It was the arbitrary nature of how the UK challenged what they had previously agreed to…the sort of camouflaging it by suggesting that it is only about a temporary postponement,” added Mr Neal, who chairs the powerful Ways and Means Committee.

Britain has argued that the move to delay the introduction of checks was needed to keep goods on shelves in Northern Ireland. However, the EU is now preparing legal action against the UK for breaking the terms of the Brexit agreement, which required the checks to be introduced by April 1st.

In a fresh warning to London, Mr Neal – who will have ultimate say over a trade deal between Britain and the United States in his capacity as chair of the Ways and Means Committee – said the Belfast Agreement must be respected.

“This a reminder that there can be no disruption to the Good Friday Agreement, period. We see that agreement as a template that should be a model for the rest of the world.

“The president has made his position very clear. Speaker Pelosi and I have reinforced it. You have the executive and the legislative branch, and the chair of the committee with oversight on trade saying there can be no threat to the Good Friday Agreement and certainly no return to the hard border.”

Annoyance

He also expressed annoyance that he had not been informed about Britain’s intentions despite speaking with Britain’s ambassador to the United States and Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis recently.

“They did not tell me about the decision until after it was announced. There’s no room for unilateral action. One of the things in negotiations are that surprises are not good.”

His intervention comes ahead of next week’s St Patrick’s Day virtual meeting between US president Joe Biden and Taoiseach Micheál Martin.

Britain is dispatching an official from the Northern Ireland Office to Washington in a bid to counter Irish influence in the US capital as criticism grows at the highest levels in the US about Britain’s decision to breach the terms of the Brexit agreement.

Mr Neal was speaking after a virtual meeting this week between the Friends of Ireland caucus, a bipartisan group of Congress members, and EU Commissioner Marco Sefcovic and Foreign Minister Simon Coveney.

Ahead of St Patrick’s Day, the US Senate is preparing to unveil a new resolution in support of the Belfast Agreement to the floor early next week.