Message to Boris: US-UK trade deal hinges on ‘backstop’ call

“Don’t even think about it” is the message US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi delivered with special emphasis during her recent visits to London and Dublin. The words were a strong caution to any UK government seeking a special US-UK trade deal without the inclusion of the Northern Ireland “backstop” to prevent the re-instatement of a hard border between the North and South of Ireland when Britain exist the European Union.
One colleague in particular who accompanied her was Congressman Richard Neal, of Springfield, Mass., who, as chairman of the US House Ways and Means Committee, holds a particular role that Boris Johnson, the new British prime minister might pay attention to, given his determination to exit the EU without a deal if the EU continues to hold the line on the “backstop,” the guarantee that a “hard Irish border” – physical checkpoints for goods and people crossing between North and South — won’t be put in place when the EU and UK break up.
While Winston Churchill once pondered why the “dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone” so perplexed British politics (as if Britain had nothing to do with the island’s partition or distress), Johnson and the next British government will face the added formidable obstacle of US Congressional opposition in addition to the weight of its problems with a European Union standing firm against it where the island of Ireland is concerned.
It is Rep. Neal’s own stated position that the inclusion of the “backstop” under any withdrawal agreement is fundamental to the protection of Strand Two of the Good Friday Agreement by guaranteeing there will be no hard border in Ireland under any circumstances. He knows the “backstop” is a protocol the Irish government worked hard to secure. Neal himself also worked long and hard to secure the Good Friday Agreement which, for Boris Johnson’s education, the US government, with the backing of both US political parties, also supports in a rare (for these days) example of bipartisanship.
Unlike Johnson, Neal is also aware from his own direct observation that since the 1998 Agreement, “the 310-mile border has been frictionless and indivisible. More than 30,000 people cross the border each day without incident. There is free movement of goods and services. After so much progress, and 21 years of peace, thoughts of returning to the bad old days of checkpoints, roadblocks, and customs patrols are simply unacceptable.”
This should matter to Boris Johnson because it matters to Rep. Neal and, with that, to Speaker Pelosi. In the simplest Queen’s English, the reality is that regardless of any empty promise from President Trump about “‘a great trade deal,” if Britain leaves the EU without a Northern Ireland “backstop,” no US-UK trade deal will get past the US House Ways and Means Committee.
Simon Hoare, chairman of the House of Commons Northern Ireland Select Committee, is indeed correct in stating that the position taken by Johnson represents “ a very, very dangerous step.” It is dangerous far beyond trade matters alone for both Britain and Ireland. Both Irish Garda Commissioner Drew Harris, and George Hamilton, the former PSNI chief constable, have said that any physical infrastructure or fortifications on the Irish border post-Brexit would threaten peace and security.
“A hard border from a policing perspective would not be a good outcome because it creates a focus and target,” Hamilton said. His is a view echoed by a recent report by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
Neal and Pelosi are by no means alone, given the vast majority of Democratic and Republicans alike who continue to value the key role that US Sen. George Mitchell of Maine played in the successful peace process that was backed by President Clinton in working closely with both the Irish and British governments. That effort saved the lives of members of the police and security forces as well as ordinary citizens on all sides.
It is indeed a perverse and dangerous irony that Boris Johnson, who sees himself as student of history and is fond of quoting Winston Churchill, has, unlike Churchill, chosen to place party over country. By his reckless behavior toward stability in Northern Ireland and his threat to the British economy by “a No Deal Brexit,” he has cravenly catered to extremists offering the politics of darkness.
In the end, it may take the actions of friends of Great Britain and Ireland alike in the US Congress to steer the British off the rocks of moral, political, and economic disaster by focusing their next government’s attention on the reality that any attempt to undermine the peace that has been achieved in Ireland and the prospects for a prosperous, harmonious future for all in will not stand.
Dr. Francis Costello is a historian who worked in the Northern Peace Process as a member of the Clinton Administration, as chief of staff to US Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy II, and as an advisor to Mayor Ray Flynn. He now resides in Belfast.