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16 September 2020

Why the real special relationship is between the US and Ireland

As Dominic Raab visits Washington to allay concerns about the Internal Market Bill, he will see quite how deep a stake the US has in the Irish peace process.

By Ailbhe Rea

Dominic Raab is in Washington today (16 September), doing a spot of damage control. The Internal Market Bill, which has caused huge controversy in the UK over its planned breach of international law and potential threat to the peace settlement in Northern Ireland, has also provoked concerns across the pond.

On 9 September, Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the US House of Representatives, issued a stark warning to the UK that there will be “absolutely no chance of a US-UK trade agreement passing the Congress” if the UK government does anything to undermine the Good Friday Agreement, the 1998 Northern Irish peace settlement.

Four senior congressmen  three Democrats and one Republican  have since echoed her warning. In a letter to Boris Johnson, they reiterated that “the United States Congress will not support any free trade agreement between the United States and the United Kingdom if the United Kingdom fails to preserve the gains of the Good Friday Agreement and broader peace process”. They added that “it would be difficult to see how these conditions could be met” if the government were to proceed with the Internal Market Bill in its current form, and urged Johnson “to abandon any and all legally questionable and unfair efforts to flout the Northern Ireland protocol”. 

And today, just as Raab was landing on the tarmac, a large group of prominent Irish-American politicians and business leaders flexed their muscles, urging the British government to reconsider its plans.

Both explicitly and implicitly, all three warnings make the same point. The prospect of a trade deal with the US has been framed as one of the great boons of a hard Brexit, but the two issues are more intimately and complicatedly linked than many have considered. However much the government would like to sever all ties with the EU in the name of sovereignty, a Brexit deal that guarantees no hard border on the island of Ireland is a prerequisite for satisfying the very politicians who will ultimately decide the fate of any trade deal the UK strikes with US. The deal may be negotiated with the Trump administration, but it is the US Congress who will ratify it. 

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See also: Ailbhe Rea on why Boris Johnson’s disregard for the withdrawal agreement will cost him Northern Ireland

It is worth remembering quite how much of a stake the US has in the current arrangements on the island of Ireland, in different but overlapping ways. Pelosi, an Italian American, has no familial history that bonds her to Irish interests. She is representative of the wider American stake in the Irish peace process, dating back to the Clinton administration’s pivotal role in chairing the Good Friday Agreement talks. She has previously spoken of the Good Friday Agreement as “an ideal, a value, something we all take pride in”. The peace in Ireland is an American legacy that many of the country’s politicians (if not Trump) will do everything in their power to guarantee.

But, of course, that intimate stake in the peace talks is a direct result of a long history of Irish emigration to the US, and the ongoing bond between the two nations as a result. That is where the Irish-American lobby represents such an important consideration. As Americans, they relate to the Good Friday Agreement as Pelosi does: as an objective, third-party guarantor. As Irish people – and, in many cases, Irish nationalists  they are representatives abroad of one of the two groups between whom the Good Friday Agreement is designed to guarantee peace. Their Irish nationalist outlook means that a hard border on the island of Ireland would be fundamentally an anathema, not just as a violation of the terms of the Good Friday Agreement but also of their ideological principles, which in some cases, have manifested as support for the Irish republican movement. The Irish-American link means that the Irish nationalist interest has a voice at home and away: not just in Ireland, but in the heart of the US Congress.

Considering these two interconnected US stakes in the Irish peace process, Raab will be at pains to emphasise to Pelosi that the controversial aspects of the Internal Market Bill are powers the government hopes never to have to use. But the conflict is a reminder of where the “special relationship” really is to be found. The UK and US cooperate deeply on defence and security matters, but, when it comes to passing a trade deal through congress, the relationship that matters is the one with Ireland.

See also: Stephen Bush asks whether the Lords will move to defeat the Internal Market Bill