Newton Emerson: Can Irish America throw a spanner in the works of Brexit?
Irish-American political clout may be a factor in any proposed US-UK trade deals
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar can use Ireland’s influence with assertiveness in the US. Photograph: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg
Because Brexit is not complicated enough, Irish-America has entered the fray.
If this is not at Dublin’s behest, it is certainly with its foreknowledge.
At Davos last Thursday, Leo Varadkar issued two unsubtle warnings to the UK about life after a no-deal Brexit. Speaking to Peter Foster, the Daily Telegraph’s Europe editor, the Taoiseach said: “It will be very difficult for the UK to conclude any trade deals with the question of the Irish Border unresolved.”
Ireland will have a veto over any UK-EU deal, as well as the ear of Brussels and member states.
Foster said the Taoiseach “also pointed out to me that the Irish-American lobby in Congress will never allow a UK-US deal to go through if the UK government has erected a border in Ireland that deprives nationalists of rights under the Good Friday [Belfast] Agreement”.
This Tuesday, Democrat congressman Brendan Boyle introduced a resolution opposing a hard border, in order to protect the agreement.
“We must not go backwards,” he said.
Hours later, as Westminster voted against the backstop, Boyle tweeted: “After agreeing to the Irish backstop, Theresa May’s government has now reneged on it. Why would anyone negotiate with her now?”
He had already tweeted about Brexit and the Belfast Agreement three days before Varadkar’s Davos interview.
Boyle has a significant ally in fellow Democrat congressman Richard Neal, who has a long-standing involvement in Northern Ireland, co-chairs the Friends of Ireland Caucus on Capitol Hill and has recently been appointed head of the Ways and Means Committee, which would oversee any UK-US free trade deal.
Close eye of Congress
About 30 members of Congress are believed to be keeping a close eye on Brexit and Ireland.
How much bother for the UK could they cause?
A first point to note is how little this is likely to upset unionists.
During the Troubles, the merest suggestion of Irish-American involvement in Northern Ireland drove unionists up the wall – they perceived it through suspicions of IRA sympathy.
One of the achievements of the peace process is to have completely transformed this relationship. Today, unionists of all stripes are as happy hob-nobbing in Washington as anyone else and have welcomed Americans as neutral arbiters in Belfast.
Boyle will not want that to go backwards. Neal has made an issue of lobbying president Donald Trump to send a special envoy to Northern Ireland to address the Stormont collapse, so he is particularly unlikely to start attacking the DUP.
Irish-American criticism will instead be directed at London, where few MPs should find it alarming.
Almost everyone else in Westminster is wary or outright opposed to rushing into a deal with the merciless Americans
The context of any pressure on Westminster is that the EU and the United States do not have a free trade agreement, or even much by the way of preferential trading arrangements.
A proposed free trade agreement, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, is mired in controversy and has been stalled on and off by Trump.
Hard Brexiteers banging on about a default to World Trade Organisation rules have become a running joke but on UK-US trade they are correct. No deal would have essentially no effect and there is next to nothing Congress could do about it.
About 20 WTO members, including the United States, have raised objections to the UK copying over the EU’s goods schedule – its list of WTO tariffs and quotas. They want tweaks and several have filed formal appeals. This would be a way for Irish-America to drop a spanner in the works. However, it is only an administrative nuisance and does not prevent normal trade continuing.
Hard Brexiteers are of course very interested in a transatlantic free trade agreement. This is central to their buccaneering vision of “Global Britain”.
But almost everyone else in Westminster is either wary or outright opposed to rushing into a deal with the notoriously merciless Americans. The UK, inexperienced and desperate, would be crucified. A probable majority of MPs want a Brexit too soft to strike independent trade deals with anyone.
In any case, Congress is out of this loop. To avoid precisely the sort of to-and-fro chaos seen in London, with the executive signing off deals then legislators picking them apart, law and convention in the United States is for the White House to broker trade agreements, with Congress given only a final Yes or No vote. Thirty members would struggle to block the post-Brexit deal Trump has vowed to deliver, his unreliability notwithstanding.
The Ways and Means Committee is meant to have oversight of trade negotiations but Trump has often simply ignored it. In a further complication, the president has said he would prefer a no-deal Brexit to May’s withdrawal agreement.
Although the Irish-American threat might be flimsy on closer inspection, it is not a pointless exercise by the Taoiseach and reveals much about his negotiating approach and concerns. It says he is not just a patsy for Brussels but is using Ireland’s influence with equal assertiveness wherever he finds it.
That is not a bad message to send to London, from any perspective.