US lawmakers have warned that the UK must ensure a “soft” Irish border if London wants to secure a trade deal with Washington, further clouding Theresa May’s hope of boosting British trade after Brexit.
At a Washington reception for the Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney on Wednesday, prominent congressmen from both the Democratic and Republican parties said the UK had to honour the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which underpinned the peace settlement in Northern Ireland, as it negotiates its departure from the EU.
US politicians with affiliations to Ireland wield great influence over US trade policy. Richard Neal, an Irish-American member of the House of Representatives is the Democratic chairman of both the Congressional Friends of Ireland caucus and the House ways and means committee, which holds the power to approve or block any US-UK trade deal.
Peter King, a Republican representative from New York, said it was “important” that the current unmanned “soft” border on the island of Ireland be maintained “if the British want to consider any kind of trade agreement with the United States”.
Much of the impasse over Brexit in the British parliament surrounds the so-called backstop, a measure in the withdrawal agreement that prevents the emergence of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
If there is a no-deal Brexit some analysts have argued that there would have to be a hard border, involving checks and guard posts.
“This is not just some parochial Irish issue,” Mr King said. “This is an issue that ended 800 years of struggle and to bring that back because of something like Brexit would be an absolute disaster.”
Separately, Brendan Boyle, a Democratic representative from Pennsylvania on the House ways and means committee, said it was “hard” to get trade agreements through Congress.
He added: “Trust is important, and if you are about to enter a trade negotiation and you’ve gone back on the backstop and you’ve gone back on the Good Friday Agreement, then that will certainly be remembered.
“We have a special relationship with the UK, and we have a close familial relationship with Ireland given the enormous role Irish people have played in the US.”
Mr Boyle has introduced a resolution to the US House of Representatives, one of the two chambers of the country’s Congress, asking members to formally oppose the reintroduction of a hard Irish border.
Mr Neal said it was a “rocky period again” for Ireland. “The Good Friday Agreement was what we all put our hearts into and it’s worked better than any of us have anticipated,” he said.
A US-UK trade deal has long been hailed by Tory Eurosceptics as one of the upsides of Brexit. However, US president Donald Trump cast severe doubt on the prospect last year, warning that Mrs May’s Brexit plan would mean “they may not be able to trade with us”.
The UK, meanwhile, is struggling even to roll over the EU’s existing trade deals with third countries such as Japan and South Korea
On Thursday Mrs May went to Brussels to try to rescue her Brexit deal. She is demanding revisions to the backstop from the EU but Brussels has so far refused to offer concessions.
Mr Coveney promised that the Good Friday Agreement would be honoured by his government, and told US politicians that while he believed Mrs May would also like to to honour the agreement, she was leading a divided Conservative party and a divided UK parliament. The UK prime minister has promised to uphold the Good Friday Agreement.
David Trimble, one of the architects of the peace deal, this week said that he believed the backstop violated it.
The UK embassy in Washington said Kim Darroch, the UK ambassador, “has met and continues to meet with senior politicians on all aspects of Brexit”.
British diplomats had been working to “reinforce” the message that the UK government was “committed to delivering a Brexit that ensures there is no hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland”, a spokesman said.
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