US congressman: British ‘ultimatums’ can’t solve Irish border dilemma

DUBLIN — British and unionist politicians seeking to unravel post-Brexit trade arrangements for Northern Ireland risk a return to border controls that drove decades of bloodshed, the leader of a cross-party U.S. congressional delegation told Irish lawmakers Tuesday.

“No one wants to return to a time when border controls cut across this island. This is why the EU-U.K. protocol is so important and why its implementation needs to be the subject of negotiated agreement, not unilateral action,” congressman Richard Neal said in an address to the upper house of Ireland’s parliament, the Seanad.

Neal, the Democratic co-chair of the Friends of Ireland caucus on Capitol Hill, is leading a nine-member congressional group on a tour this week, stopping first in Dublin and then in Belfast.

The new trade rules, known as the protocol, were designed to prevent a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Under the system, Northern Ireland has remained part of the EU’s single market, meaning EU checks are required on goods arriving from the rest of the U.K.

Northern Ireland’s unionists oppose the new rules because they say it has created an “Irish Sea border” within the U.K, undermining the union and pushing them toward an economically united Ireland. Leaders in Brussels and Dublin, as well as the Irish republican Sinn Féin party, say the U.K. shouldn’t be trying to change a treaty it ratified barely two years ago.

Britain is threatening to introduce legislation that would unilaterally override the Brexit agreement and stop checks at the ports in a bid to placate unionists, who are refusing to revive Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government unless the protocol is abandoned.

But Neal pointedly rejected unionists’ argument that post-Brexit trade rules should require their support, or “consent,” a central concept of Northern Ireland’s 1998 peace pact.

“The principle of consent does not mean veto,” he said during an unscripted part of his speech to senators inside Dublin’s parliament building, Leinster House.

Neal’s delegation includes five other members of the House ways and means committee, including the Republican co-chair of the Friends of Ireland, Mike Kelly of Pennsylvania. That committee, chaired by Neal, wields the power to approve or block prospective trade deals — seen as a key prize of Brexit sought by U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

Neal said the U.K. government’s decision to withdraw from the EU — and to choose a “hard” Brexit outside the EU’s customs union and single market — had created “unprecedented challenges for the island of Ireland.”

Neal contrasted Britain’s confrontational treatment today of Brussels and Dublin with the teamwork-driven diplomacy of 1998, when the governments of Britain and Ireland jointly crafted the Good Friday peace deal with U.S. and EU support.

“Unilateral actions, intransigence and ultimatums are not the solutions, nor have they ever been,” said Neal, who received a standing ovation from the senators.

He faces a frostier reception later this week in Belfast, where unionist leaders have been lining up to criticize what they see as Americans’ Irish nationalist bias and simplistic grasp of Northern Irish politics.