DUBLIN (Reuters) – European Union Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic and Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney briefed the influential Irish-American caucus at the US Congress on Wednesday on Britain’s unilateral shift to Northern Ireland’s Brexit arrangements.
The fate of Northern Ireland, which is closely watched by US President Joe Biden, has become the most hotly contested Brexit issue.
While campaigning in last year’s presidential election, Biden bluntly warned Britain that it must respect Northern Ireland’s 1998 peace agreement because it withdraws from the EU or there won’t be a separate US trade deal.
London finally agreed to a protocol that aligns the UK-administered territory with the single EU market for goods when it exits the bloc’s orbit. This requires an inspection of some items arriving there from elsewhere in Great Britain.
The extension of Britain’s unilateral grace period at last week’s hearings has resulted in pledges of legal action from the EU and accusations from Ireland that its neighbor is not acting like a “respectable nation”.
The caucus meeting considered “Britain’s unilateral steps in implementing the Protocol” and discussed Northern Ireland’s “unique opportunities” due to its full access to EU and UK markets, Coveney said in a statement.
“The EU and the US have been firm partners in the peace process,” said Coveney. “I want to thank the members of the Caucus for their engagement today and their continued support for the Good Friday Agreement.”
The agreement largely ended three decades of violence between mostly Catholic nationalists fighting for a united Ireland and mostly Protestant union members, or loyalists, who wanted Northern Ireland to remain part of Britain.
Coveney has sought support from US lawmakers during the Brexit process and Irish Prime Minister Micheál Martin will speak with President Biden next week in lieu of the St Patrick’s Day bilateral meeting at the White House.
The Friends of Ireland caucus, a bipartisan group on Capitol Hill that is considering a Brexit debate on Ireland’s behalf before Northern Ireland’s protocol is agreed in 2019, is seeking direction from Sefcovic and Coveney, the European Commission said.
The group is chaired by Democrat Richard Neal, who is also chair of the Congressional committee overseeing trade.
Reporting by Padraic Halpin and Conor Humphries in Dublin and Philip Blenkinsop in Brussels; Edited by Nick Macfie and Toby Chopra