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Newton Emerson: Joe Biden’s Brexit remarks show an opportunity for unionism

US president-elect did not seem like someone yearning to push for difficult change in Ireland

Joe Biden has made his first comments on Brexit and Ireland as US president-elect. After four years of choking on Donald Trump's word-salad, it is alluring to once again have statements from the leader of the free world that can be thoughtfully chewed over and digested.

Most journalists will be tempted, relieved and a little desperate to resume the civilised parlour game of pre-Trump political analysis. They must remember all things are relative. As Barack Obama’s vice-president, Biden was notoriously careless with language. His 70-word comment this week was an unscripted reply to a television reporter. Subjecting it to Kissenger-era chin stroking might be over the top.

The phrase that has intrigued most people in Ireland is “we do not want a guarded Border”. For unionists, the words that immediately followed are more important: “We’ve worked too long to get Ireland worked out.”

As far as Irish republicans and many nationalists are concerned, Ireland is not worked out. The Belfast Agreement is a transitional arrangement, not a settlement, and Brexit should bring forward its Border poll mechanism.


While Biden said nothing incompatible with that, nor did he sound like someone yearning to push for difficult change. The opportunity here for unionists, which precedent suggests they will squander, is to glad-hand around the United States agreeing Ireland is indeed worked out and Biden is just the man to keep it that way.

That would require more humility on Brexit than the DUP has been able to show, at home or abroad.

More aggressive Irish-Americans

So far, Biden has not appointed any of the more aggressive Irish-Americans in his outer orbit. However, his reported choice for secretary of state, Antony Blinken, fully subscribes to the notion of Brexit breaching the Belfast Agreement and last year said of the UK: “This is not just the dog that caught the car, this is the dog that caught the car and the car goes into reverse and runs over the dog.”

Unionism in general has proved eternally disinterested in making its case across the Atlantic, despite knowing it should do so and often having doors held open for it. Under Trump, the surliest parts of the DUP had potential access in Washington that major countries could only dream of, yet still there was no diplomatic offensive (or undiplomatic offensive.)

Unionism lets its case default to the UK-US relationship as a whole, a risky approach under the treacherous Tories, which brings us back to Biden’s novel and intriguing term “guarded border”.

The Border has never been closed, even at the height of the Troubles

This acknowledges there is a Border – incredibly, something that needs to be said. It does not strictly rule out infrastructure, inspections or “frictions”, any amount of which the last Irish government defined as a hard border. It only rules out a visible security presence, which is consistent with previous statements from senior US Democrats and Republicans that any Brexit outcome on the island or Ireland will be acceptable as long as it does not result in violence – and Americans seem to have a quite specific form of violence in mind: clashes at the Border itself.

This is at least relevant to the Belfast Agreement, which while not mentioning the nature of the Border in any way, does promise “normal security arrangements in Northern Ireland, consistent with the level of threat”.

Biden concluded his remarks this week by saying: “The idea of having a Border North and South once again being closed is just not right, we’ve got to keep that Border open.”

Low bar for success

This sets a reassuringly low bar for success. The Border has never been closed, even at the height of the Troubles. There might be plenty of news footage in the year ahead of queues of lorries, Sinn Féin fancy dress protests and police action against dissidents and smugglers, but the image Biden has wittingly or unwittingly created is of a shooting war along a sealed frontier – a mercifully improbable prospect, even if the UK leaves the EU without a trade deal or breaches the withdrawal agreement.

The remainder of the president-elect’s statement referred to his conversations on reaching a deal. “I talked with the British prime minister, I talked with the Taoiseach, I talked with others, I talked to the French.”

The others include the president of the European Council, comprising all EU member heads of state or government.

This list looks like a surprisingly British understanding of Brexit as an issue between the UK and its neighbouring countries, as well as between the UK and the EU, and of the Border as a three-sided rather than a two-sided problem.

As the past week’s brinkmanship over meat products has revealed, if checks are not performed between Britain and Ireland, or within Ireland, they could appear between Ireland the continent, with much of this puzzle driven by French defensiveness on agrifood.

Perhaps Biden will bring that perspective to the White House. If so, it would be more luck than Brexiteers deserve.