Nancy Pelosi, America’s third most powerful politician, warned today that a breakdown in the talks over the Northern Ireland Protocol would be ‘problematic’ for a post-Brexit UK-US trade deal.
The Speaker of the US House of Representatives, who is currently visiting Britain, has been critical of Prime Minister Boris Johnson‘s approach to Northern Ireland following the UK’s exit from the European Union.
The pair discussed the issue in Downing Street yesterday and Mrs Pelosi today expanded on her views about the talks underway between the UK and Brussels to resolve issues surrounding the protocol’s implementation.
Mrs Pelosi, 81, said she felt it would be ‘very unlikely’ for London and Washington to agree the fresh trade terms coveted by the UK Government ‘if there is destruction of the Good Friday accords’ as a result of the negotiations.
It is not the first time there has been intervention from the US about Brexit’s impact on Ireland, with President Joe Biden – who has Irish ancestry – and other Democrats, such as Mrs Pelosi, taking a keen interest in the situation.
Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the US House of Representatives, and Prime Minister Boris Johnson at Downing Street yesterday
Mrs Pelosi speaks to an audience at Chatham House in London this morning as her visit to Britain continues
Mrs Pelosi walks alongside Alok Sharma, president of this year’s United Nations COP26, in London this afternoon
Mrs Pelosi told a Chatham House event in London today that she was ‘glad that more time’ had been afforded for talks
At a time when the UK was considering overriding parts of the deal in 2020, Mrs Pelosi warned that Congress would never pass a free trade agreement with the UK if the Government’s actions imperilled the peace process.
The UK wants to rewrite the protocol, which avoids a hard border with Ireland by effectively keeping Northern Ireland in the European Union’s single market for goods.
What is the Northern Ireland Protocol and why is the US so involved?
Britain is angling for a trade deal with Washington now it has left the EU, but it remains locked in talks with Brussels and Dublin about how best to implement tricky post-Brexit trade rules for Northern Ireland.
The Northern Ireland Protocol aims to keep an open border between Northern Ireland and EU member state Ireland, a key plank of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that brought an end to decades of violence.
But pro-British unionists say the deal to mandate checks on goods crossing the Irish Sea from mainland Britain creates another de facto border and puts Northern Ireland’s place in the wider UK in jeopardy.
London and Brussels agreed this month to indefinitely extend a grace period on implementing some checks.
Any UK-US trade deal will need to be passed by the House of Representatives led by Nancy Pelosi, whose boss, US President Joe Biden, is of Irish descent.
The US, which played a key role in securing the 1998 Good Friday peace accord, has cautioned Britain against doing anything to undermine the peace settlement.
The post-Brexit rules have led to trade barriers for goods crossing the Irish Sea from Great Britain, even with grace periods in place to help goods such as chilled meats continue to be exchanged.
Mrs Pelosi told a Chatham House event in London today that she was ‘glad that more time’ had been afforded for talks between the UK and the EU on how to operate the protocol.
But she said there ‘has to be an agreement’ that respects the terms of the peace agreement in Northern Ireland or transatlantic relations and the prospect of a trade concord could suffer.
‘If it takes a little more time, then so be it,’ the senior US politician said. ‘This is not said as any threat, it is a prediction: if there is destruction of the Good Friday accords, it would be very unlikely to have a UK-US bilateral.
‘We have to have a path that includes it. It would be problematic in terms of a bilateral.’
She revealed that Mr Johnson had given her ‘reading material’ about the issues Britain faces around the protocol when they met at No 10 this week.
And in the clearest indication yet that the Prime Minister will travel to Washington as part of his trip next week to the US for the United Nations general assembly, Mrs Pelosi said she ‘hopes to host’ the Conservative Party leader at the House of Representatives, where she will raise any matters that arise from her reading.
Reports on both sides of the Atlantic have suggested Mr Biden is set to welcome his UK ally to the White House as the pair look to work closely together on climate change and their approach to China.
It comes after the US, UK and Australia announced a new defence pact, known as Aukus, which is being seen as an attempt to keep China’s military expansion in the Indo-Pacific in check.
After Mrs Pelosi’s meeting with Mr Johnson yesterday, his office said the Prime Minister ‘outlined the UK’s concerns with the way the Protocol is being implemented and the impact it is having on the people of Northern Ireland.’
Mr Sharma accompanies Mrs Pelosi as she holds her mask while they walk along Downing Street in London this afternoon
Mrs Pelosi shakes hands with Mr Sharma as she leaves Downing Street this afternoon
Mrs Pelosi leaves Chatham House in London today after speaking on the subject of the ‘state of American democracy’
Mrs Pelosi poses outside 10 Downing Street in London yesterday where she visited to speak with Boris Johnson
The 1998 peace deal largely brought an end to the ‘Troubles’ – three decades of conflict between Irish Catholic nationalist militants and pro-British Protestant ‘loyalist’ paramilitaries in which 3,600 people were killed.
The British-run region remains deeply split along sectarian lines 23 years after the peace deal brokered by the US. Many Catholic nationalists aspire to unification with Ireland while Protestant unionists want to stay part of the UK.
The Northern Ireland Protocol aims to keep the province in both the UK’s customs territory and the EU’s single market.
The EU wants to protect its single market, but an effective border in the Irish Sea created by the protocol cuts off Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK – to the fury of Protestant unionists. Some unionists say the protocol contravenes the 1998 peace deal.