UK seeks to row back minister’s comments on Northern Ireland protocol
British prime minister Boris Johnson with US house speaker Nancy Pelosi in Washington DC. Photograph: Sarah Silbiger/Bloomberg
The British government has sought to row back from a senior minister’s suggestion that US president Joe Biden does not understand the issues surrounding the Northern Ireland protocol. Agriculture secretary George Eustice said Mr Biden was “wrong” about the protocol, and that the president was just listening to Ireland and the EU.
Justice secretary Dominic Raab told the House of Commons a few hours later that Mr Biden “understands our view, and we have explained our position, as well as his taking into account what the EU has said”.
And prime minister Boris Johnson said in Washington that he disagreed with Mr Eustice, adding that Mr Biden had not raised the issue of the protocol during their meeting at the White House on Tuesday.
“I don’t think it came up at all. We had a meeting of over 90 minutes, and it wasn’t raised,” he said.
Answering reporters’ questions before the meeting, the president said he felt “very strongly” about the protocol and about the Belfast Agreement.
“We spent an enormous amount of time and effort, the United States, it was a major bipartisan effort. And I would not at all like to see, nor I might add would many of my Republican colleagues like to see, a change in the Irish accords, the end result having a closed border in Ireland.”
A Downing Street readout of the meeting said Mr Johnson had updated the president on the protocol but The Irish Times understands that Mr Biden did not raise the issue and it was not discussed during the 90-minute meeting.
Mr Johnson was on Capitol Hill on Wednesday meeting House speaker Nancy Pelosi, and his government has been engaged in an energetic campaign to persuade members of Congress that the protocol must be renegotiated.
Mr Eustice’s remarks about Mr Biden to Sky News on Wednesday reflected London’s frustration about the strength of Irish influence over how the protocol is viewed in Washington.
“He [Mr Biden] is probably at the moment just reading the headlines, reading what the EU is saying, reading what Ireland might be saying, which is that they would like the Northern Ireland protocol to work in the way the EU envisage.
“We think he is wrong because the truth is that unless we have a sustainable solution that enables trade to continue between GB and Northern Ireland then we are going to have issues, and that itself would become a challenge to the Belfast Agreement,” he said.
“We will obviously explain to the United States effectively it is tantamount to saying that potatoes grown in one part of the United States can’t be sold in another part of the United States.”
Labour’s shadow Northern Ireland secretary Louise Haigh said it was ludicrous that a government which claimed the protocol would not mean checks in the Irish Sea should question how well others understood the agreement.
“Boris Johnson insisted he would never place barriers down the Irish Sea. And then did it. He signed an international agreement. And then broke it,” she said.
“The truth is, the prime minister’s actions on the protocol have led to a profound loss of trust in Northern Ireland, damaged our standing with our international partners, and the prospects of a trade deal.
“The approach of brinkmanship is failing. Boris Johnson negotiated this deal, and he now has a responsibility to find a resolution for businesses and communities.”