- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 17, 2020

Trying to ease U.S. fears of renewed tension in Ireland, British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab on Thursday said his government has given an “absolute unconditional commitment” that there will be no “hard border” dividing Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland when Britain exits the European Union.

His comments at the end of a visit to Washington come amid rocky Brexit negotiations with the EU, with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and EU leaders deeply at odds over what Brussels says are attempts to change the Brexit preliminary accord signed at the beginning of the year.

If no deal is reached, Britain faces the prospect of dropping out of the bloc without a new trade agreement and with the two parts of Ireland finding themselves economically separated again.

That prospect — and the potential damage to the U.S.-backed 1998 Good Friday Agreement ending sectarian warfare on the island — have sparked warnings from Democratic presidential nominee Joseph Biden, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and others that a post-Brexit U.S.-U.K. trade deal would be off the table if the Irish question is not resolved.

Mr. Johnson and Mr. Raab argue that it is the EU that is being inflexible, but Mr. Raab’s Washington trip was designed in part to preserve the hopes of a trade deal, which Brexit backers have long said would be a key payoff for leaving the EU.

Mr. Raab, during a virtual event hosted by the Atlantic Council, said part of the point of his Washington trip was to listen to U.S. policymakers and said he understood the power of Ireland’s friends on Capitol Hill. He said Mr. Johnson’s recent Brexit proposals were “defensive” in nature and noted that Britain — unlike the EU — has made a “unilateral” declaration that it would not re-impose a hard trading border in Ireland.

The EU, he added, “should make the same declaration” to clear up confusion and fear about the matter, he added.

Britain finalized its protracted and contentious divorce from the EU on Jan. 31, more than three years after the shock British referendum in which voters chose to split by a 52% to 48% margin.

Britain and the EU have entered a “transition period” through the end of the year to negotiate their relationship, which will have to resolve a host of long-standing agreements and rules.

The foreign secretary said his government is “excited” about striking a post-Brexit free trade deal with the U.S., but a potential agreement could face some hurdles under a Biden administration if the U.K. fails to honor the Northern Irish peace deal.

Mr. Biden later retweeted a letter authored by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel, New York Democrat, urging the British government to uphold the Good Friday agreement.

“We therefore urge you to abandon any and all legally questionable and unfair efforts to flout the Northern Ireland protocol of the Withdrawal Agreement and look to ensure that Brexit negotiations do not undermine the decades of progress to bring peace to Northern Ireland and future options for the bilateral relationship between our two countries,” Mr. Engel wrote, along with Reps. Richard Neal, Massachusetts Democrat, William Keating, Massachusetts Democrat, and Peter King, New York Republican.

A spokesperson for Mr. Johnson told Reuters that “the PM has been clear throughout that we are taking these steps to precisely make sure that the Belfast Agreement is upheld in all circumstances and any harmful defaults do not inadvertently come into play.”

“We will continue to engage with our U.S. partners to ensure that our position is understood.”

But there were also reports that British Conservative MPs were unhappy with the pressure from the Democrats.

Former Conservative Cabinet minister Iain Duncan Smith told the London Times, “We don’t need lectures on the Northern Ireland peace deal from Mr. Biden. If I were him, I would worry more about the need for a peace deal in the U.S. to stop the killing and rioting before lecturing other sovereign nations.”

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