US 'should use its economic power to mediate in Northern Ireland'

Europe expert says Washington could use prospect of a trade deal as leverage with London

epa09262431 (L-R) Boris Johnson, U.K. prime minister, U.S. President Joe Biden, second right, and U.S. First Lady Jill Biden, right, on the first day of the Group of Seven (G7) leaders summit in Carbis Bay, Cornwall, Britain, 11 June 2021. Britain hosts the G7 summit in Cornwall in from 11 to 13 June 2021.  EPA/HOLLIE ADAMS/POOL

The US should bring to bear its economic might to help mediate in Northern Ireland, a Europe expert has said.

Tensions over Northern Ireland hung over last weekend's G7 summit, with Britain and the EU at odds over post-Brexit trading arrangements.

Washington told Britain that it would not welcome any move that jeopardised the 1998 peace agreement in Northern Ireland.

Donatienne Ruy, a Europe expert at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington, said the US could use the prospect of a post-Brexit trade deal with Britain as leverage to influence the UK government.

"A continued war of words (and trade) [between the UK and EU] is not in the interests of the US, and London’s increasing disregard for international agreements it signed calls into question its dedication to the rule of law," said Ms Ruy.

"As the UK government seeks a future trade agreement with the US, the latter can use this leverage to encourage flexibility."

The US could also invest in Northern Ireland’s technology sector as it tries to win friends and mediate between communities, she said.

This could come under the auspices of a tech partnership announced by US President Joe Biden and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson after their meeting.

The leaders said in a joint statement that “unlocking Northern Ireland’s tremendous potential” was part of safeguarding the agreement.

“The UK and the US will continue working together towards that shared goal,” they said.

Former US president Bill Clinton was involved in brokering the 1998 agreement which largely ended three decades of violence in Northern Ireland.

Recent bouts of unrest... have spurred concerns that violence can return to daily life in Northern Ireland

Mr Biden, who often speaks of his own Irish heritage, is a strong supporter of the agreement.

Ms Ruy said it was time for the US to back up its rhetorical support with “tangible action” to maintain peace.

These could include three-way talks between the US, UK and EU, or invitations to Washington for small delegations from Northern Ireland.

Diplomatic efforts in Europe could "position Biden and his diplomatic apparatus as potential mediators", she said.

The tech partnership “should focus on the Northern Ireland technology sector to secure a transition to forward-looking industries and job creation”.

Ms Ruy said the US should look to mediate between Protestant and Catholic leaders and encourage dialogue between the communities.

“Political mediation should incentivise party leaders to place the interests of the people of Northern Ireland above all other considerations and accept basic guidelines for open, even if informal, dialogue”, she said.

“This could include bringing in small groups of political representatives to the US for frank, private conversations.”

Emmanuel Macron, France’s president, right, gestures to Boris Johnson, U.K. prime minister, on the first day of the Group of Seven leaders summit in Carbis Bay, U.K., on Friday, June 11, 2021. U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson will give leaders a beachside welcome, formally kicking off three days of summitry along the English coast after meeting U.S. President Joe Biden for the first time on Thursday.  Photographer: Neil Hall/EPA/Bloomberg

Stalemate in trade row 

The latest controversy centres on trading arrangements for Northern Ireland after Britain completed its departure from the EU's economic orbit in January.

Negotiators agreed that border checks on the island of Ireland should be avoided because of the risk of stoking sectarian violence.

In order to prevent this, a special protocol was agreed for Northern Ireland which effectively keeps it in the EU’s customs union.

This means that Brussels expects the UK to carry out checks on goods crossing the Irish Sea from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.

But with unionists in Northern Ireland unhappy over the protocol, Britain is resisting carrying out the checks – thereby infuriating the EU.

Anger over the post-Brexit rules was a contributing factor to a week of street violence in Northern Irish cities in April.

“Recent bouts of unrest, primarily from the unionist camp, have spurred concerns that violence can return to daily life in Northern Ireland,” Ms Ruy said.

“Actions speak louder than words, and they will be necessary to reach a resolution for old issues and new challenges.”