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

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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.

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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.

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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.

Northern Ireland

‘I do not need any political victory here, I want to find a solution’ - Šefčovič

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European Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič made his first visit to Northern Ireland this week. At the end of two days of intense meetings with business, civil society and local politicians he laid out his approach at a press conference at the end of his visit: “I do not need any political victory here, I want to find a solution, which would represent a win-win for all, first and foremost for the people of Northern Ireland.”

“My major takeaway was engagement, focusing on solving problems and continuation of our contacts,” said Šefčovič. “We are ready to walk the extra mile to look for solutions and we hope that we can do it in a calm and constructive atmosphere.”

He said that over the past two days he had heard a lot about SPS, access to goods, medicines in particular, and involvement of Northern Irish stakeholders. However, he added that people were not dwelling on scrapping the oversight of the European Court of Justice, a sine qua non of enjoying the free movement of goods. 

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“I haven't heard from anyone who thought it would be a good idea to miss out on the chance to be part of the biggest single market in the world cost free, because the people here know that, for example, Norway pay more than €3 billion for being in the market for each financial financial perspective.” He urged politicians to focus on the everyday concerns of people and the interests of business. 

Šefčovič underlined the EU’s unwavering commitment to the people of Northern Ireland, but called for honesty: “The European Union cannot be blamed for the costs of Brexit. Brexit made it necessary to find an agreement on how to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland. After years of long, complex negotiations, we found a solution with the UK in the form of the Protocol.”

“Removing the Protocol will not solve any issues. It is the best solution we found with the UK to address the unique situation of the island of Ireland, and the challenges created by the type of Brexit that the current UK government chose. Failing to apply the Protocol will not make problems disappear, but simply take away the tools to solve them.”

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On the UK’s decision to unilaterally extend grace periods, he said: “The EU has demonstrated its goodwill. Earlier this week, we reacted in a cool and calm manner to the UK's statement regarding the continuation of existing grace periods.

“We did this in order to create a constructive atmosphere for our ongoing discussions.

In conclusion, let me stress one important thing: our overarching objective is to establish a positive and stable relationship with the United Kingdom.

“After five years in which clarity and stability have often been lacking, we now have a solid basis on which to cooperate – the Withdrawal Agreement, and the Trade and Cooperation Agreement.”

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European Commission

Commission lays out practical solutions for medicines supply in Northern Ireland in the framework of the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland, and for sanitary and phytosanitary measures

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On 26 July, the Commission published a series of ‘non-papers' in the fields of medicines and sanitary and phytosanitary measures, in the framework of the implementation of the Protocol on Ireland / Northern Ireland. A non-paper specifically on medicines lays out the Commission's proposed solution to ensure a continued, long-term supply of medicines in Northern Ireland, from or through Great Britain. This non-paper was shared with the UK prior to the package of measures announced by the Commission on 30 June 2021, to address some of the most pressing issues related to the implementation of the Protocol in the interest of all communities in Northern Ireland.

Vice President Maroš Šefčovič said: “These solutions have an unambiguous common denominator – they were brought about with the core purpose of benefitting the people in Northern Ireland. Ultimately, our work is about ensuring that the hard-earned gains of the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement – peace and stability in Northern Ireland – are protected, while avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland and maintaining the integrity of the EU Single Market.”

The solution on medicines involves the EU changing its own rules, within the framework of the Protocol, so that regulatory compliance functions for medicines supplied to the Northern Ireland market only, may be permanently located in Great Britain, subject to specific conditions ensuring that the medicines concerned are not further distributed in the EU Internal Market. The medicines concerned here are primarily generic and over-the-counter products. The solution demonstrates the Commission's commitment to the people in Northern Ireland and to the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement, with a legislative proposal expected in the early autumn in order to be able to finish the legislative process on time.

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The other non-papers published today relate to a solution identified by the Commission to ease the movement of assistance dogs accompanying persons travelling from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, and a proposal by the Commission to simplify the movements of livestock from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, and to clarify the rules on EU-origin animal products that are moved to Great Britain for storage before being shipped to Northern Ireland. All these papers, outlining the flexibilities offered by the Commission, have been shared with the UK and EU member states, and are available online.

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Brexit

EU backs Ireland as UK searches for solutions to Northern Ireland Protocol dilemma

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The controversial Northern Ireland Protocol which is part of the EU/UK Withdrawal Agreement, shows no sign of resolving itself any time soon. As Ken Murray reports from Dublin, the European Commission is unwilling to back down while the British continue to search for an opening to get themselves out of an agreed document that they themselves hailed last December.

It’s seven months since the British government boasted of a great deal when Brexit was formally signed and sealed in Brussels with smiles and pre-Christmas cheer all round.

As UK chief negotiator Lord David Frost tweeted on Christmas Eve 2020: “I’m very pleased and proud to have led a great UK team to secure today’s excellent deal with the EU.

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“Both sides worked tirelessly day after day in challenging conditions to get the biggest and broadest deal in the World, in record time. Thank you all who made it happen.”

One might think reading his words that the British government were hoping to live happily ever after once the deal was done. However, all is not going to plan.

Under the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement, the Northern Ireland Protocol, which is an annex to the EU/UK accord, created a new trading arrangement between GB and Northern Ireland which, although being on the island of Ireland, is actually in the United Kingdom.

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The objective of the Protocol is that certain items being moved from GB to NI such as eggs, milk and chilled meats amongst others, must undergo port checks in order to arrive on to the island of Ireland from where they can be sold locally or moved on to the Republic, which remains in the European Union.

As working class protestant unionists or British loyalists in Northern Ireland see it, the Protocol or notional trade border in the Irish Sea, amounts to another incremental step towards a united Ireland-which they vehemently oppose-and marks further isolation from Britain where their loyalty is to.

Former Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party Edwin Poots said the Protocol has put “absurd barriers placed on trade with our biggest market [GB]”.

A grace period from 1 January to 30 June was agreed to allow for the measures to come in to effect but such has been the hostility in Northern Ireland towards the Protocol, that period has now been extended until the end of September in order to find ways for acceptable compromise to keep all sides happy!

The Protocol and its implications which, it seems, Britain didn’t think through, has angered members of the unionist community so much in Northern Ireland, protests on the streets every other night since early Summer, have become a common sight.

Such is the sense of betrayal towards London over the Protocol, British loyalists have threatened to take their protests to Dublin in the Irish republic, a move many would see as provoking an excuse for violence.

Loyalist activist Jamie Bryson speaking on The Pat Kenny Show on Newstalk Radio in Dublin recently said: “Save for there being a quite remarkable turnaround in terms of the Northern Ireland protocol in the coming weeks… I would imagine most definitely those protests will be taken south of the border, certainly following 12 July.”

12 July, a date seen in Northern Ireland as marking the peak of the Orange Order marching season, has come and gone. So far, those opposed to the Protocol in Northern Ireland have yet to cross the border that separates northern from southern Ireland.

However, with pressure mounting on the Government in London from British unionists in Northern Ireland and traders who feel their businesses will suffer greatly when the full contents of the Protocol document come in to effect, Lord Frost has been trying desperately to amend and soften the deal he negotiated and praised to the max last December.

The same deal, it should be added, was passed in the House of Commons by 521 votes to 73, a sign perhaps that the British Government didn’t perform its due diligence!

Among the visible consequences of Brexit in Northern Ireland are long delays for truck drivers at ports with some major supermarkets chains complaining of empty shelves.

The feeling in Dublin is that if COVID-19 measures were not in place, the real true consequences of Brexit would likely be more harsh in Northern Ireland than they already are.

With pressure on Lord Frost to sort out this political dilemma as soon as possible, he told the Westminster parliament last week, “we can not go on as we are”.

Publishing what was titled ‘A Command Paper’, it brazenly went on to say, “the involvement of the EU in policing the deal just “engenders mistrust and problems”.

The Paper even suggested the abolition of blanket customs paperwork for traders selling from Great Britain into NI.

Instead, a “trust and verify” system, dubbed an “honesty box”, would apply, whereby traders would register their sales in a light-touch system allowing inspection of their supply chains, a suggestion which, no doubt, sent smugglers to bed with a smile on their face!

The very suggestion of an “honesty box” must have sounded amusing and ironic in Northern Ireland where in 2018, Boris Johnson promised delegates at the DUP annual conference that “there would be no border in the Irish Sea” only for him to subsequently go back on his word!

With EU Commission President Ursula Von Der Leyen confirming last week to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson that there will be no re-negotiation of the Agreement, the UK side looks set to make itself ultra unpopular again with the protestant unionist and Irish nationalist communities in Northern Ireland.

With British protestant unionists in Northern Ireland angry over the Protocol, Irish catholic nationalists are also furious with London after the Secretary of State for NI Brandon Lewis announced proposals to cease all investigations in to murders committed during the Troubles prior to 1998.

If implemented, the families of those that died at the hands of British soldiers and security services would never ever get justice while those that died from actions carried out by UK loyalists and Irish republicans would suffer the same fate.

The Taoiseach Micheál Martin speaking in Dublin said “the British proposals were unacceptable and amounted to betrayal [to the families].”

With US President Joe Biden, a man of Irish heritage, saying last year that he will not sign a trade deal with the UK if London does anything to undermine the 1998 Northern Ireland Peace Agreement, the Boris Johnson administration, it seems, has a dwindling number of friends in Brussels, Berlin, Paris, Dublin and Washington.

Talks to review the terms of the Northern Ireland Protocol look set to resume in the coming weeks.

With the EU signalling it is unwilling to budge and the US administration siding with Dublin, London finds itself in a difficult dilemma which will require something remarkable to escape from.

As one caller to a Dublin radio phone-in programme remarked last week on the issue: “Somebody should tell the British that Brexit has consequences. You get what you vote for.”

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