When Bill Clinton first stepped into the Northern Ireland conflict in 1994, his intervention provoked fury in John Major’s Downing Street. By lifting a US visa ban on Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams, the then US president was said to be playing politics with terrorism. Five years later, critics applauded Clinton as a pivotal supporter of the Belfast peace agreement.
Clinton’s familial ties with Ireland were tenuous. Joe Biden wears his Irish heritage on his sleeve. The president’s ancestors hailed from Mayo, among Ireland’s most ruggedly beautiful counties but historically one of the poorest. A great-great-grandfather fled the human catastrophe of the 19th-century potato famine. When Biden says “I’m Irish”, he sounds as if he means it.
The Belfast accord Clinton helped craft in 1998 is now being destabilised by Brexit. This has required a refashioning of economic borders to ensure the frontier between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic remains open — a critical element in the settlement between unionists and nationalists.
Boris Johnson’s Brexit agreement with the EU includes provision for new checks on trade across the Irish Sea to ensure the province does not become an unpoliced back door to the EU single market. Now, accused by unionists of weakening Northern Ireland’s place in the union, the prime minister wants to tear up this so-called protocol.
A bipartisan group of members of the US Congress is calling on Biden to help break the present deadlock. The group has asked him to appoint a special representative to underscore the administration’s interest in safeguarding the peace and to offer its good offices in negotiations.
The idea draws a hostile reaction in Downing Street, where Johnson’s aides talk privately of “interference”. Biden should brush aside such objections. Riots orchestrated by loyalist paramilitaries have shown that politics in the province can quickly give way to a return of communal violence. Ideally, the new US envoy should be in place before the president travels to the UK for next month’s summit talks among G7 leaders.
The UK government has thus far shown no interest in meeting its commitments in the Brexit agreement. To the contrary, it has unilaterally postponed implementation of the checks agreed with Brussels. David Frost, Johnson’s negotiator, insists that the onus is on the EU to rewrite most of its demands. It should be ready to rely on the good faith of the UK to preserve the integrity of the EU single market. Given Johnson’s record, EU governments are unsurprisingly resistant.
Downing Street’s tactics are transparent. By warning Brussels that it will be blamed for any fracturing of the Belfast agreement, Johnson hopes to force the EU27 to concede. Yet by signalling to hardline unionists that, if necessary, the government will tear up the protocol, he is all but inviting the extremists to return to the streets.
The danger is acute. Tensions between nationalists and unionists rise during the summer when unionists stage their annual marching parades. And in Edwin Poots, the Democratic Unionist party has elected a new leader implacably opposed to the protocol.
Unionist concerns are not without foundation. Brexit has altered the delicate balance struck by the Belfast accord between competing unionist and nationalist identities. Unionists cannot be blamed for seeking reassurance that a customs border with Great Britain does not put Northern Ireland on a slippery slope out of the UK.
By the same token, mediation will not be straightforward. Unionists harbour fears of US bias in favour of nationalists. And the White House could scarcely interpose itself in technical talks between the UK and the EU on the nature of border controls.
For all that, in lending the authority of his office Biden has the chance to give a badly-needed political jolt to negotiations. The biggest obstacle to a breakthrough is the lack of trust. To adopt a more flexible approach to border controls, the EU needs absolute assurance that the UK will keep its word. Johnson has been careless of promises made to Brussels. He could not be so cavalier in jettisoning pledges to Biden.
As for unionist fears of US bias, the president could turn them to his advantage. Clinton understood that securing unionist confidence required unalloyed backing for the principle of consent — a commitment that the political status of Northern Ireland can be changed only by a majority of its citizens. A new White House envoy could make that their opening line.