Ireland finally has one of its own in the White House. And Joe Biden’s arrival in the Oval Office may well prove pivotal in protecting the Northern Ireland peace process in the face of Brexit — Britain’s inexplicable decision to leave the world’s biggest trading partnership.
The 2020 presidential election may have been an existential moment for the United States, but it is a sign of the world’s interconnectedness that the ramifications of Biden’s victory are likely to be just as profound on the other side of the Atlantic.
Even before he was sworn in as the 46th president of the United States, Biden’s victory in the November election threw a spanner in the works of the British government’s negotiations on a new trade deal with the European Union.
Britain’s strongest card in the EU negotiations was the prospect of four more years of Trump’s presidency and the belief (probably mistaken) that he would facilitate a speedy U.S. trade deal. That prospect emboldened the United Kingdom to threaten a “no deal” Brexit — not the outcome Europe wanted. Biden’s win put an end to any talk of no deal and handed the EU the negotiating advantage. Without the prospect of a U.S. quick trade fix, the U.K. needed Europe more than Europe needed the U.K.
Britain makes much of its “special relationship” with the U.S., but Brexit has further eroded its importance in the world and its use to the U.S. No longer is it the bridge between America and Europe. And rather than pandering to the British, the Biden administration’s priority in Europe is reversing the damage that Trump did to America’s relationship with allies such as France and Germany.
Biden is a pragmatist. He will not go out of his way to snub Britain, but neither will he fawn over it. U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has a particular form with the Democrats. A former contrarian newspaper columnist, Johnson once claimed then-President Obama was hostile to U.K. interests because he was a “part-Kenyan president.”
Like many former colonies, Kenya owes the U.K. few favors, but racial slurs against an American president — which resonated with birther conspiracy theories — don’t help oil the diplomatic wheels. Biden himself referred to Johnson as a “physical and emotional clone” of former President Donald Trump.
That observation is one of the few things on which Biden and Trump might agree. So successful was Johnson in sucking up to “the Donald” that the U.S. president nicknamed him “Britain Trump.” Unsurprisingly, it is a title Johnson no longer cares for, but unfortunately for him, it resonates. Both have media backgrounds, both have a reputation for lying (Johnson has been sacked twice for it), and both are populists who love playing to the gallery.
Like most globally minded observers, Biden views Britain’s decision to leave the EU as an act of national self-harm, though he is too polite to say it. Less circumspect is Biden’s pick as secretary of state, Antony Blinken, who described Brexit as a “total mess.” Blinken also acknowledged that Brexit had the potential to harm the Irish peace process.
Not only does Brexit undermine the U.K.’s place in the world and threaten its long-term economic viability, but leaving the EU also calls into question the future of the British nation itself.
Northern Ireland and Scotland both voted to remain in Europe, and the decision to leave has fueled support for Scottish independence. Were a referendum to be held today, polls suggest Scots would vote to end the union.
It has also destabilized politics in Northern Ireland, with fears that, once again, contested sovereignty will lead to an upsurge in sectarianism and a return to violence. As is the case with Scotland, there have been growing calls for a poll on Irish unity as a way of getting fully back into the EU.
Peace in Ireland is one of the defining achievements of American foreign policy.
Biden is alert to these risks. As far as the Northern Ireland peace process is concerned, he and his fellow Democrats have “skin in the game.” Peace in Ireland is one of the defining achievements of American foreign policy. Former President Bill Clinton was one of its midwives, and the United States and Europe are guarantors of the international treaty that brought it about.
Wielding soft power well beyond its size, Ireland matters in U.S. politics (and not just to Democrats). Former President John F. Kennedy’s image once had squatters’ rights on the wall in every self-respecting Irish household, alongside His Holiness the Pope and the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
But Biden is greener even than Kennedy, and he will countenance nothing that threatens the peace process or that might see another hard border in Ireland.
Just days before its final break with Europe, at 11 p.m. British time on Dec. 31, the U.K. agreed to a trade deal underpinned by a Northern Ireland Protocol that effectively keeps the north within the single market.
The protocol might have settled nerves, but during the negotiations last September, Johnson’s government threatened to revoke an agreement that there would be no hard border in Ireland — in contravention of international law.
The phrase “perfidious Albion” is engrained in the American and Irish psyche, and at that point Biden made his position clear: “We can’t allow the Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland to become a casualty of Brexit.”
And he fired a shot across British bows and their aspirations for a U.S. trade deal. “Any trade deal between the U.S. and U.K. must be contingent upon respect for the Agreement and preventing the return of a hard border. Period.”
The word “period” is the diplomatic equivalent of grabbing someone by the lapels and shouting in their face.
The border is of particular importance, not just because of its impact on Anglo-Irish politics but also because it is the only piece of land that connects the U.K. and the EU. It runs from Lough Foyle in the north of Ireland to Carlingford Lough in the east. It has colored relationships in Britain and Ireland for 100 years, but that twisty line on a map means as much to Irish Americans as it does to the Irish themselves. There’s a clause somewhere in the American Constitution that says every elected president has to have Irish ancestry (I jest, but only just).
Nixon had links to Quakers in County Antrim; Carter also claims Ulster heritage; Reagan’s ancestors emigrated from Ballyporeen in County Tipperary; the Bushes have links to a king of Leinster, one of the four ancient Irish provinces; Obama (or “O’Bama,” as he was dubbed) has maternal ancestors in Moneygall, County Offaly. A motorway service station there is named after him: The Obama Plaza on the M7 serves burgers, pizzas, and barista-style coffee to all comers.
As in so many areas, Trump is the exception that proves the rule. His primary interest in Ireland is the Trump International Golf Links and Hotel in Doonbeg, County Clare. For Trump, Making America Great Again meant destabilizing Europe rather than making the world a safer place. Had the Irish peace process been on his priority list, he would not have encouraged Britain’s Brexiteers.
The thing Trump disliked about Europe — its sense of common purpose — was the very thing that helped secure peace in Ireland (as it had done between former sworn enemies France and Germany). Debates about sovereignty had torn Ireland apart since partition, but it is not an issue when countries pool it in a wider union. Britain’s and Ireland’s membership in the EU created the circumstances where the border was invisible and where — for all intents and purposes — Ireland was indivisible.
In history, timing is everything. And by one of those strange coincidences, partition is very much in people’s minds this year.
Northern Ireland came into being 100 years ago when, in the aftermath of the Irish War of Independence, Britain partitioned Ireland. Six of the nine counties of the ancient province of Ulster remained within the U.K. (the number was chosen to ensure a Protestant/Unionist majority), and the remaining 26 counties became the Irish Free State.
The border then became the focus of successive campaigns by the Irish Republican Army to drive Britain out of Ireland and reunite the island. It also reduced politics north of the border to a constant battle over the constitution and whether Northern Ireland should remain part of the U.K. All other matters — health, education, jobs — became subordinate to the constitution, making economic decline an inevitability.
Britain’s and Ireland’s membership in the EU dealt with the economic border, and the resulting free movement of people, goods, and services created a common market in Ireland and across Europe. The political dimension was resolved by a power-sharing agreement, brokered by former U.S. Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell in 1998 and, crucially, ratified in a referendum in both the north and south.
For Irish republicans, the all-Ireland poll meant they could legitimately say the agreement was the expressed will of the Irish people as a whole and not an imposition by Britain.
Some 20 years on, the Brexit project — primarily driven by English nationalists and the right-wing media — and the 2016 referendum, conceded by the British Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron to placate right-wingers in his own party, posed a fundamental threat to that settlement in Northern Ireland.
With the U.K. out of Europe, a land border in Ireland had the potential to encourage republican dissidents to take up arms once more against Britain’s continued “occupation.”
Protestations to that effect throughout the referendum campaign — including from former Prime Ministers John Major and Tony Blair — fell on deaf ears. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) — the majority party in Northern Ireland — actively campaigned for Brexit and found themselves in the enviable position of holding the balance of power at Westminster after Cameron’s successor Theresa May lost her majority in a foolhardy general election in 2017.
Although Northern Ireland, like Scotland, rejected Brexit, the DUP had joined forces with Brexiteers and actively opposed proposals that would have kept Britain closely aligned with the European customs union, thus overcoming the threat of a hard border.
The DUP got its comeuppance when Johnson, who replaced May as prime minister, won a landslide election in December 2019, neutralizing the DUP veto and paving the way for the Northern Ireland Protocol and the border down the Irish Sea.
Johnson has refused to acknowledge there is now an internal border within the U.K. But the facts — and the agreements signed, sealed, and delivered — show otherwise.
There is a whole new customs infrastructure in place. British suppliers are refusing to send goods to Northern Ireland because of red tape; anyone wanting to relocate from Great Britain to Northern Ireland has to complete customs declarations; and after a grace period, tough new rules will limit the flow of animal and food products between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
Typical of the notices going up on British supplier websites is this from Real Seeds, a small horticulture business based in Wales: “Why we can’t ship to Northern Ireland.” The company supplies seeds to gardeners and smallholders. “We just wanted to make it clear that it is not our choice in any way but is a result of the Brexit deal. Right now, no exports of vegetable seed are allowed at all, either to the EU, or to Northern Ireland.”
On the face of it, the current situation benefits the nationalist agenda. Northern Ireland’s links with the rest of the U.K. are demonstrably weaker now than they were before Brexit kicked in; there is a single market in Ireland; and Northern Ireland remains knit into Europe.
But people in Northern Ireland are well aware of the law of unintended consequences. In what is still an immature system of governance, instability presents a real and present danger. Political structures are fragile; on both sides of the political divide, paramilitaries are ready to exploit tensions; and the British government is no longer seen as an honest broker.
Indeed, Northern Ireland’s secretary of state has said bluntly that he is a unionist. Writing on Jan. 18 about the centenary of Northern Ireland, Brandon Lewis said: “As Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, I have a particular obligation to remain impartial when balancing cross-community interests, but that does not mean I am neutral. As a former Chairman of our Party, the Conservative and Unionist Party, I am unapologetically pro-Union.”
Just over two weeks into the new arrangements, the DUP was already agitating for the suspension of the Northern Ireland Protocol — conveniently forgetting that its actions helped bring it about. It has just launched a five-point plan aimed at uniting the main unionist parties (Democratic, Ulster and Traditional Unionist Voice) around the common aim of getting rid of the Protocol.
And it is increasing pressure on Johnston to break his agreement with Europe. DUP MP Ian Paisley Jr. claimed in parliament that Johnson had “screwed over” unionists by signing the protocol.
Their leverage has increased — and because of a misstep from the unlikeliest of sources.
No one expected the first threat to the protocol to come from the EU. But it did. There was disbelief at an announcement from Brussels on Jan. 29 that the EU would activate a provision in the protocol (Article 16) imposing a hard border in Ireland to prevent COVID-19 vaccines getting to Britain.
Almost instantly, the protectionist move — prompted by a shortage of vaccines in the EU — was condemned by the British and Irish governments (neither of whom had been given advance warning) and by nationalist and unionist parties in Northern Ireland. Before the evening was out, the decision was reversed — “a misunderstanding.” But colossal damage had been done.
Faith in the European Commission, led by newbie Ursula von der Leyen, has been shaken, and the protocol can no longer be seen as sacrosanct.
Having been set aside once — albeit for a few hours — there is nothing to stop it being set aside again.
The growing pressure from the DUP to set the protocol aside, and a decision to withdraw officials checking goods arriving in Northern Ireland from Britain following threats, has further destabilized the political situation. Relations in Northern Ireland Executive, where the DUP shares power with Sinn Fein, are already fragile. Reopening the constitutional debate threatens to tear them apart
Add in toxic plans by the British government and unionists to celebrate this year’s centenary of the foundation of Northern Ireland, and you have a situation ripe to deepen the sectarian divide.
Over the past two decades, the DUP has retained its almost total control of the unionist electorate by constantly talking up the threat of a united Ireland. The EU decision has allowed the DUP to use the protocol to weaponize the border once again.
In line with predictions, Brexit has raised the Northern Ireland peace process threat levels to amber. The EU’s blunder has made things worse. It has complicated President Biden’s management of relations with the U.K., Britain’s former partners in the European Union, and his desire to secure the Good Friday Agreement.
Conscious of his country’s obligations as a guarantor of that process, Biden will be keeping an even closer eye on Britain and how it discharges its responsibilities, and he will become more protective of an ever more fragile peace process. He will want to see the threat level down to green — “forty shades” of it.