Richard Neal has accused the UK of starting to take the Good Friday Agreement “for granted”, as the influential Democratic lawmaker urged Britain to “find a solution” to the stand-off with the EU over Northern Ireland.
In an interview with the Financial Times before leading a congressional delegation to Brussels, London and Belfast, Neal urged the UK to return to talks with the EU and made it clear the “onus and spotlight” was on Britain to break through the impasse.
“[The UK] continues to say the right things about the Good Friday Agreement — I think we need now to have action to match the words,” said Neal, who has devoted much of his political career to Irish issues and whose views are closely aligned with the Biden administration’s.
Neal said he feared that Britain’s dedication to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement was waning despite its stated commitment to the accord and that Westminster was “beginning” to see it merely as a “cavalier achievement”.
“[The UK is] taking it for granted, taking it as though it just happened. It didn’t just happen. Long years were put into this, winning the confidence of some pretty disparate opinions,” he said.
Neal’s push for a deal comes after the UK pledged to introduce legislation enabling it to make unilateral changes to post-Brexit trading arrangements for Northern Ireland, which put a customs border for goods in the Irish Sea.
Britain maintains that the amendments to the arrangements, known as the Northern Ireland Protocol, are necessary to keep trade flowing within the UK, but the EU is outraged that Britain could be about to break international law.
“If everybody is open to negotiation, why don’t they negotiate?” Neal asked during an interview at the US Capitol building, where he chairs the powerful House Ways and Means committee that has jurisdiction over tax and trade.
The US fears that if the UK moves ahead with the legislation it could undermine the peace deal it helped broker 24 years ago under President Bill Clinton and special envoy George Mitchell.
“It’s gonna ruffle the feathers of a lot of people here in Washington, that’s for sure,” Neal said. “We don’t believe that Ireland should be held hostage to turbulence in the UK political structure.”
On Thursday, Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic House speaker, said it was “deeply concerning that the UK is now seeking to unilaterally discard the Northern Ireland Protocol”.
She added: “Negotiated agreements . . . preserve the important progress and stability forged by the Good Friday Accords”.
The UK maintains that the protocol is putting the peace deal under serious strain.
“The Good Friday Agreement has been a stellar achievement of American foreign policy and, and I must say we were, I thought, honest brokers,” said Neal, who is also co-chair of the bipartisan Friends of Ireland caucus in the US Congress.
The 73-year old lawmaker, who is of Irish descent with a large Irish-American constituency in his Massachusetts district, started to become interested in the politics of Northern Ireland at the time of the 1981 hunger strikes.
He said there were some signs the UK might be looking for an opening to strike a compromise. “I think that what they’re doing is maybe trying to convince the [EU] Commission to make some concessions now”, he said.
Neal reiterated his warning that any trade agreement between the US and the UK would not be approved by the US Congress if a “hard border” were to return between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
But Neal shied away from suggesting broader repercussions for the relationship between the US and Britain. During the Biden administration, London and Washington have bolstered their alliance in the Indo-Pacific through the Aukus submarine deal, and co-ordinated their response to the war in Ukraine.
Neal said the US president had been “clear and firm as it relates to our position on the Good Friday Agreement”.
Biden has been considering appointing his own special envoy for Northern Ireland, a move that Neal would support.
“I want somebody who’s really knowledgeable about the issue. This can’t be on-the-job training. You need somebody who’s a seasoned diplomat,” he said.
Neal also said Northern Ireland had a new political reality after the victory of Sinn Féin, the nationalist party, in recent elections. “If you want to go forward, you have to accept the result of an election. This election was hugely symbolic . . . there’s a lot of room here to build an agreed Ireland.”