Northern Ireland news

Platform: Next British prime minister must heed US warning on backstop

A blimp depicting Boris Johnson being prepared on Saturday to be launched in Parliament Square, London, ahead of a pro-EU march organised by March for Change. Picture by Aaron Chown/PA
Dr Francis Costello

BORIS Johnson and Jeremy Hunt were plainly not paying sufficient attention during the recent visit to these islands by US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

When the possibility of any UK government leaving the EU and seeking a special US trade agreement without the retention of an Irish backstop was raised, the message from Ms Pelosi was unequivocal: "Don't even think about it."

Among those who accompanied her on that delegation was Congressman Richard Neal who as Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee holds a particular power that the two final contenders to be the next British prime minister also appear to have overlooked.

It is Neal's 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.

Neal knows the backstop is a protocol the Irish government strived to secure just as he himself worked long and hard to back the Good Friday Agreement which has the support of both main US political parties.

Neal is also aware from his own observation that since 1998 "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 may indeed not have impacted on Johnson or Hunt. But in the plainest form of the Queen's English the reality is this: regardless of any baseless promise from President Trump about "a great trade deal" with the United States, if Britain does crash out of the EU without a deal and without the Northern Ireland backstop, any such measure will not get past the US House Ways and Means Committee. It's that simple.

Simon Hoare, chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, is correct in declaring that the position taken by Johnson and Hunt represents "a very, very dangerous step".

It is indeed dangerous far beyond trade matters domestic and overseas alone for both Britain and Ireland.

Both Garda Commissioner Drew Harris and former PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton 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 view was also echoed by a recent report by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Neal and Pelosi are by no means alone as the great majority in Democratic and Republican ranks value the important role that George Mitchell played in the peace process, backed by President Clinton, in working closely with both the Irish and British governments to secure a historic deal that helped a peaceful end to the conflict.

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 one fond of quoting Winston Churchill, has unlike Churchill chosen to place party over country.

By his reckless behaviour towards stability in Northern Ireland, and threatening 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 to Britain and Ireland alike in the US Congress to steer the UK off the rocks of moral, political and economic disaster and focus on the reality that any attempt to undermine the peace that has been achieved and the prospects for a prosperous future for all in harmony will not stand.

:: Dr Francis Costello is an historian who worked in the peace process as a member of the Clinton Administration and as chief of staff to Rep Joseph P Kennedy II and now resides in Belfast

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