Irish Prime Minister Michael Martin held talks with Northern Ireland political leaders on Friday to resolve a post-Brexit trade standoff, as Washington warned Britain that its brinkmanship with Europe threatens the peace.
The visit comes after Brussels and Washington were outraged by London’s pledge to overhaul the so-called Northern Ireland protocol, which is part of its Brexit deal with the European Union.
Its demands to inspect goods from England, Scotland and Wales have angered pro-British unionists in Northern Ireland, who have refused to join Belfast’s new power-sharing government.
Before Martin’s visit, U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi warned that Washington would not sign a free trade agreement with Britain if London moved forward with a rewrite of the deal.
“It is deeply concerning that the UK now seeks to unilaterally abandon the Northern Ireland Protocol, which preserves the important progress and stability brought about by the (Good Friday 1998) Agreement,” Pelosi tweeted. The agreement ended decades of bloodshed in the province.
“If the UK chooses to undermine the Good Friday Agreement, Parliament cannot and will not support a bilateral free trade agreement with the UK.”
A U.S. congressional delegation flew to Brussels on Friday to meet European Commission Vice President Marros Sefkovic, a key figure in Europe on the issue.
“We are equally committed to protecting the Good Friday (Belfast) agreement,” he tweeted. “A joint solution to implement the agreement is the only way to do so.”
-Need to talk-
The UK government says the deal needs to be changed to end political paralysis in Northern Ireland and its unilateral action is a backup plan if talks with Brussels fail.
But Martin has dismissed allegations of EU inflexibility and urged the biggest trade union party to rejoin Belfast’s power-sharing executive.
Nationalist Sinn Fein is the largest party in Northern Ireland’s history for the first time and will take on the symbolic first minister post.
“The EU has repeatedly said we can act on issues,” Martin told BBC radio.
“Professional, serious negotiations between the UK government and the EU are the only way to resolve this issue.”
He accused the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) of holding a convention for ransom by refusing to nominate ministers after recent elections.
“We cannot have a situation where one party decides that other parties cannot meet in parliament,” he added.
But DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson said the deal had upset the delicate balance needed to achieve power-sharing in Northern Ireland.
“Power-sharing only works if unionists and nationalists agree,” he told the BBC.
“There must be new arrangements if we are to move forward… the protocol has already damaged Northern Ireland’s economic and democratic arrangements.
“It has to be replaced by arrangements that can be supported by unionists and nationalists.”
– Action required –
The protocol recognises Northern Ireland as a fragile, post-conflict territory that shares new land borders with the UK and the EU.
Given that the border has been a frequent flashpoint for three years of violence, the Good Friday Agreement provides for keeping the border open with neighbouring EU member Ireland.
But it means checks must be carried out elsewhere to prevent goods from entering the EU single market and customs union through the Northern Ireland backdoor.
The UK has proposed a “green lane” for UK traders to send goods to Northern Ireland without any customs declarations to the EU.
Donaldson said he would be happy to discuss trade arrangements with Martin, but said the operation of the convention was purely a Belfast and London affair.
America’s interest stems from the fact that it helped bring about the Good Friday Agreement.
“If Nancy Pelosi wants to see the agreement protected, then she needs to recognize that the agreement is hurting and undermining the agreement, and that’s why we need to deal with it,” Donaldson added.