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Biden underscores need to maintain Northern Ireland peace, will not weigh in on UK-EU row

EU Reporter Correspondent

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US President Joe Biden said on Wednesday (17 March) it was “critically important” to maintain Northern Ireland’s peace process, but a senior aide said the US government would not take sides in a UK-EU rift over movement of goods to the British-ruled province.

'Critically important' to maintain Good Friday agreement: Biden

As Biden held a virtual meeting with Irish Prime Minister Micheál Martin (pictured) on St. Patrick’s Day, he underscored his support for the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement that ended decades of bloodshed in Northern Ireland.

In a joint statement, the two called for a good faith implementation of the peace accord and other international agreements designed to address the unique circumstances on the island of Ireland.

“We strongly support that, and think it’s critically important to be maintained,” Biden said. “The political and economic stability of Northern Ireland is very much in the interest of all our people.”

Biden and Martin also pledged to expand ties between the two close allies, including on issues such as climate change, combating the coronavirus pandemic, and cancer research.

Both men expressed the hope to meet in person soon.

Biden, who often speaks with pride of his Irish roots, said the White House would be illuminated in green later Wednesday to “celebrate the deep, deep affection” Americans had for Ireland. White House fountains also ran green, continuing a tradition dating to former President Barack Obama, whom Biden served as vice president.

“The key objective is of course to deepen our relationship,” Martin told MSNBC earlier. “In President Biden, we have the most Irish-American president since John F. Kennedy, and his election was greeted with great affection and warmth in Ireland.”

The Irish leader thanked Biden for his “unwavering support” of the Good Friday agreement, adding, “It has meant a lot. And it has mattered.”Slideshow ( 4 images )

“With a new trading relationship now in place between the European Union and the United Kingdom, and a protocol that protects peace and avoids a hard border on this island, I want to move forward with a positive relationship with the United Kingdom,” Martin said. “That means standing by what has been agreed and working together to make a success of it.”

There have been disputes over the implementation of agreements put in place as the UK exited the EU, including the Northern Ireland protocol, which governs movement of goods into the province. According to the withdrawal agreement, Northern Ireland remains in the EU single market for goods, and so requires checks on goods arriving there from other parts of the UK.

The Biden administration viewed the rift as a trade issue to be resolved between Britain and the EU, and would not take sides, a senior administration official said before the meeting.

The dispute has rekindled tensions in Ireland more than two decades after the peace accord largely ended three decades of violence between mostly Protestant unionists who want Northern Ireland to stay in the UK and mostly Roman Catholic nationalists seeking to unite the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland.

This month, Northern Irish loyalist paramilitary groups said they were temporarily withdrawing support for the 1998 peace agreement due to concerns over the Brexit deal.

The groups said they believed Britain, Ireland and the EU had breached their commitments to the peace deal.

Provisions in the EU-UK trade and cooperation agreements, and the Northern Ireland protocol, should protect the gains of the peace agreement, the U.S. official said, adding the “hope that both sides are able to return to the table and discuss the implementation of the agreement.”

Martin has said Ireland, an EU member, is counting on U.S. support to help maintain political stability in Northern Ireland.Slideshow ( 4 images )

Biden stopped by a separate virtual meeting that Vice President Kamala Harris had scheduled with Northern Ireland First Minister Arlene Foster and deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill, the White House said in a statement.

The U.S. officials expressed their strong support for the peace agreement and the Northern Ireland protocol, and encouraged the leaders to “continue working together toward a forward-looking Northern Ireland with a prosperous economy that reflects the identities and aspirations of all traditions.”

The virtual meeting with Martin was the first bilateral event with Ireland hosted by Biden, who attended a St. Patrick’s Day Mass at his church in Delaware before returning to Washington. Biden is expected to make a trip to Ireland as soon as this summer.

Ireland

NI Unionism in trouble

Ken Murray, Dublin correspondent

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With three high profile unionist leaders quitting their roles in the space of two weeks, protestants in Northern Ireland are facing in to a critical period of political uncertainty. As Ken Murray reports from Dublin, a merger between the two main parties that are struggling to guarantee long-term British rule in the Province may be the best option for the future and even at that, there’s no guarantee it will work!

Two weeks ago in a somewhat surprising bolt out of the blue, members of the pro-British Democratic Unionist Party staged something of a rebellion when they signed a treacherous letter calling on their leader Arlene Foster (pictured) to step down.

The unexpected move sent shockwaves through the political system on the island of Ireland.

Mrs. Foster, 50, was having a bad enough week as it was having found herself in a Belfast court locked in a defamation case against Channel 4 TV celebrity Doctor Christian Jessen who implied in a tweet that the married unionist Leader had been having an extra-marital affair with a member of her security team.

If that wasn’t stressful enough to contend with in any week, Mrs. Foster was then shafted by her colleagues.

The rebels ruthlessly decided to blame her after their Party had been shafted by Boris Johnson for the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol, the new controversial Brexit arrangement whereby certain goods entering NI from GB have to be checked at ports in Belfast and Larne.

As the hardliners saw it, her failure to prevent this development sees Northern Ireland notionally edge closer towards unification with the Republic of Ireland and further away from the grasp of London.

DUP Party colleague and unionist hardliner Sammy Wilson MP implied that her successor faces just as tough a time in the job as Brexit and other issues show no sign of going away.

He told BBC N: "Maybe a new leader will not be able to escape from some of the unfair criticism which has been attached to Arlene on this.”

To add to the DUP’s difficulties, the Party’s deputy Leader Lord Nigel Dodds, who quickly saw the sharks heading in his direction, also quit his role last week.

To make matters worse for Northern Ireland unionism, the Leader of the once un-beatable and rival Ulster Unionist Party Steve Aiken, a former commander in the British Navy, resigned as party leader on Saturday last just as the SNP was about to secure 64 seats at Hollyrood in Edinburgh and increase its call for an end to the union with Britain!

In a resigning statement, Steve Aiken said he “had taken the Party as far as he could.”

With the UUP failing to elect any MPs to Westminster in 2019 surpassed by the smaller Alliance Party which secured one and only holding 10 seats in the NI Assembly compared to 28 for the DUP, it seems Mr. Aiken hadn’t taken the Party very far at all!

Unionism on both sides of the Irish Sea is clearly in trouble!

On Friday next May 14th, the DUP will elect a new leader.

Edwin Poots, the ultra-religious, homophobic and climate change right-winger is currently the favourite and he has indicated that if elected, he will stall co-operation with Dublin on North-South bodies while simultaneously seeking a legal review of the NI Protocol.

All that before he puts road blocks in the way to prevent the introduction of the agreed Irish Language Act, moves which could increase sectarian tension.

If his rival Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, who opposed the 1998 British-Irish Peace Agreement succeeds, continuity with Foster is expected albeit with greater emphasis on bringing greater unity within the divided DUP and increasing pressure on London to end the NI Protocol.

“I will go on a listening tour to re-connect with communities and members on the ground”, he said last week suggesting the Party needs to do more to connect to its grassroots members in the heartland.

In the meantime, the beleaguered UUP will continue the search to appoint its 6th leader in 16 years!

Doug Beattie is expected to take control but it’s a job no other apparent candidates are putting their hands up and shouting “Please pick me.”! Did I say unionism is in trouble?

Whoever succeeds, the would-be leader faces unstoppable forces that the DUP have little or no control over.

Rapidly changing demographics indicate that the pro-Irish unification party Sinn Féin will win the most seats in next year’s 2022 Assembly elections in Northern Ireland putting them in the political driving seat for the first time since 1921!

Added to this, the Northern Ireland Census to be published next year is 99.9 per cent likely to see the number of catholics surpass the number of pro-British protestants in the province for the first time since the 17th century, ensuring a louder call from Irish nationalists for an historic unification referendum.

With internal warfare going on within the DUP and the UUP not knowing if it’s coming or going, the questions begs as to where these two parties are headed for as Sinn Féin slowly starts to emerge over the hill with its victory flag partly aloft ready for the far-off ultimate prize of a united Ireland.

The much respected political commentator Alex Kane, a former communications officer with the Ulster Unionist Party, believes the time has come for the two rival unionist parties to put their ideological differences aside and amalgamate.

Speaking to BBC NI TV on Sunday Politics, he said, “if they [the UUP] don’t get it right this time, if they do not make progress whether the [Assembly] election is in September or some time next Spring, if they do not win seats, increase their votes make a dent on the Alliance [Party], it’s a waste of time and I do know that certain people in the Ulster Unionist Party who quite like the idea of a gentle merge in to the Democratic Unionist Party.

“…….this is an existential moment for the Union, an existential moment for unionism and I think that if it is Doug Beattie and I suspect it will be Doug Beattie [who succeeds Steve Aiken], that is going to be his biggest challenge.”

Unionism is definitely in trouble and all that before Boris Johnson deals with the fallout from the Scottish Assembly elections.

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Brexit

Brexit barriers in focus as Northern Ireland's DUP kicks off leadership contest

Reuters

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Democratic Unionist Party's (DUP) Edwin Poots makes a statement to the media outside Stormont Castle in Belfast, Northern Ireland June 28, 2017. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne/File Photo

Northern' Ireland's biggest party was set for its first ever leadership election after its Westminster chief Jeffrey Donaldson threw his hat into the ring, promising to focus on the divisive issue of post-Brexit trade barriers.

Donaldson will stand against Edwin Poots to lead the Democratic Unionist Party at a time of heightened instability in the British province and unionist anger over the installation of a customs border in the Irish Sea.

Both Donaldson and Poots, Northern Ireland's agriculture minister, stopped short of making detailed campaign promises. But Britain, Ireland and the rest of Europe will be watching for any hardening of stances on Brexit or social issues including abortion that could alter the political balance ahead of elections next year.

The DUP currently leads Northern Ireland in a power-sharing government with its Irish nationalist rivals Sinn Fein.

Donaldson or Poots will take over the leadership from Arlene Foster who announced last week she was stepping down as Northern Ireland's First Minister at the end of June, bowing to pressure from party members unhappy at her leadership. Read more

Her departure has added to instability in the region, where angry young pro-British loyalists rioted in recent weeks, partly over the barriers that they feel have cut them off from the rest of the UK.

"I will develop and swiftly implement an agreed programme of meaningful reform and clear policy direction on key challenges like the protocol," Donaldson said in a video announcement, referring to the post-Brexit trading arrangements.

Like Foster, Donaldson, 58, is a former member of the more moderate Ulster Unionist Party. He was part of the negotiating team that stuck a deal to prop up the government of former British Prime Minister Theresa May in 2017.

Once the DUP's support was no longer needed, May's successor Boris Johnson broke the party's "blood red line" and agreed to erect the trade barriers.

Poots, 55, is one of a number of DUP ministers who have protested against the Brexit arrangements by refusing to attend meetings with Irish counterparts established under the 1998 peace deal that ended 30 years of violence in Northern Ireland.

Poots, a young earth creationist who rejects the theory of evolution, announced he was standing last week.

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Northern Ireland

It looks like being an interesting political summer for Northern Ireland

Ken Murray, Dublin correspondent

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The brutal shafting of Northern Ireland First Minister Arlene Foster last week by her colleagues in the Democratic Unionist Party look set to see the British province enter a period of political uncertainty.

As Ken Murray reports from Dublin, the ‘coup’ could see the DUP fall from its lofty perch as the largest political party in Northern Ireland and could leave people in the province without a devolved administration at Stormont Belfast for the fourth time since 1999.

Following on what has been reported here so many times over the past two months, all is not well in Northern Ireland.

Pro-British unionists who backed Brexit didn’t exactly get what they voted for in 2016 and when customs checks on goods entering NI from GB were unexpectedly imposed by the Conservative Government in London last January, angry alarm bells went off in Belfast.

This unwanted ‘reward’ for loyalty to the Crown and propping up Theresa May’s Government between 2016 and 2019 was seen as an act of betrayal by Boris Johnson.

Many unionists felt the post-Brexit Northern Ireland Protocol has isolated the province further away from GB and inched it a step closer to a united Ireland!

 With rioting on the streets and growing anger over fears of a sell-out, somebody in Northern Ireland unionism was going to have to take the blame.

The name in the firing line was First Minister and leader of the staunchly pro-British ultra-conservative Democratic Unionist Party, 50-year old Mrs. Arlene Foster!

When a motion by the more moderate Ulster Unionist Party to ban gay conversion therapy was voted on in the Stormont parliament last month, Arlene Foster’s decision to abstain was seen by the extreme hardliners in her Party as the final straw!

As the evangelical bible-gripping wing of her Party saw it, her time was up for being sympathetic and supportive of homosexuals!

A petition to oust her orchestrated by Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots (55) was signed and backed by 80 per cent of her parliamentary colleagues forcing Arlene Foster to unexpectedly announce she plans to step down as Party Leader at the end of this month and as First Minister at the end of June. The move has caused much animosity within the DUP.

Her Party colleague Sammy Wilson said in a statement she had been “carrying the can for things which were beyond her control in the Covid restrictions and has been the lightning rod for criticism of the difficulties the Assembly had.”

Bar a shock, protestant zealot Edwin Poots will replace her as DUP Leader though speculation is rife he may appoint Assembly colleague Paul Givan to the position of First Minister.

However, if Poots’ dull persona and political positions in the past are anything to go by, Northern Ireland may be heading down a very uncertain road!

Poots, who doesn’t believe in climate change, is on record as saying the Earth is only 6,000 years old! As Health Minister in 2011, he opted to maintain a ban on gay men in Northern Ireland giving blood for fear of infecting the wider community with HIV!

Last year he caused uproar when he said in bigoted fashion that catholics were ‘super spreaders’ of Covid saying they infected others at a rate of 6 compared to one for every protestant!

In 2013, he caused something of a stir when he told David McCann of the ‘Sluggerotoole.com’ website that his greatest achievement as culture Minister “was burying the Irish Language Act.”

Those last words may come back to haunt him.

The belief is that in order to work with a new DUP First Minister, Sinn Féin is likely to insist on a deadline for introducing the Act which would see dual language displays on road signs, State paper, greater penetration in schools and usage in wider Northern Ireland society, promotion etc, backed with public money and legislation.

Despite implementation of the Act being agreed between the DUP, Sinn Féin, British and Irish Governments in January of last year as part of the New Deal, New Approach to running NI, for many hard-line unionists in the Party, this plan is a step too far.

Any proposal to flourish the language would be seen by DUP hardliners as yet another step in the ‘Irish-isation’ of Northern Ireland which has been under British rule since 1921 and therefore would be a further unwelcome step towards unification with the Republic.

If Sinn Féin can’t get a commitment on commencing the Act with the new DUP First Minister, it’s highly likely they will walk away, the Assembly will collapse thus forcing an election.

With the pro-unification Sinn Fein Party tipped to win the most seats to the Assembly for the first time ever next time around due to changing demographics, the toppled DUP will likely look for someone to blame all over again for the expected loss of seats and this time the name in the frame is expected to be Edwin Poots!

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, a DUP MP at Westminster entered the leadership race earlier this week meaning there will be an actual contest to front the Party for the first time since its foundation in 1971.

Seen as a moderate conservative within the Party, Donaldson’s entry in to the leadership race is likely to split the unity that has prevailed within its ranks since the Party was founded by the Reverend Ian Paisley.

Paisley, who died in 2014 and had to be forcibly removed once from a sitting of the European Parliament in 1988 for insulting Pope John Paul, was seen by many observers as a man whose rhetoric and actions prolonged the Troubles in Northern Ireland which lasted 25 years.

He also established the Free Presbyterian Church many of whose members are staunch DUP.

However, the belief is that Poots will emerge winner. Whether he can bring unity to the divided DUP remains to be seen.

According to former footballer, legal counsel and TV personality Joe Brolly writing in the Irish Sunday Independent, “The DUP is a cult. Like all cults, the outside world is irrelevant.

“Like all cults, sooner or later it self-destructs since by definition, it cannot adapt to a changing world.”

Looks like being an interesting Summer!

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