Respecting the Good Friday Agreement, maintaining Ireland's peace, and what comes next with Brexit.

The quick answers to questions about Brexit and the Irish Border that President-elect Joe Biden gave to RTE reporter Brian O'Donovan last week were hardly definitive. They were brief, off the cuff responses, a long way from a policy statement on what is a very complex situation.    

But because they may be indicative of Biden's thinking they have been analyzed in detail here in Ireland.

Not that there was much detail to go on, just a few sentences.   "We do not want a guarded border.”  "We’ve worked too long to get Ireland worked out."  "The idea of having the border north and south once again being closed, it's just not right, we just got to keep the border open." 

That was it.   

Of course, this comes in the wake of warnings from Biden, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and senior Irish American politicians in recent months about the British doing anything on Brexit that might damage the Good Friday Agreement.  

“We can’t allow the Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland to become a casualty of Brexit," Biden said at the time.  

“Any trade deal between the U.S. and U.K. must be contingent upon respect for the Agreement and preventing the return of a hard border. Period."

So what are we to make of his comments last week? The reference to a "guarded border" has got some attention because it's not a phrase commonly used here.  
Firstly it implies an acceptance that there will be a border, which is the present reality even if it's not visible.  Secondly it seems to be saying that only a guarded border -- presumably guarded by army or police -- would be unacceptable.

Customs checkpoints and facilities on or near the border could be all right, along with all the technical solutions proposed in recent years like cameras, CCTV, etc. to make the actual border as frictionless as possible.  

His reference to Ireland being "worked out" also got attention since it could be seen as an acknowledgment that we have gone as far as is sensible at present and that a rush to a border poll -- a vote aimed at getting rid of the border -- might not be a good idea at this stage whatever happens with Brexit. We have violence "worked out" and we don't want to risk going back there.  

This is in line with comments on the North made in the past by Biden.  He has been critical of the regime in Northern Ireland and the judicial process there in relation to extraditions from the U.S. He has been welcoming to Gerry Adams and Sinn Fein in the U.S.  

But his overall position seems to be much closer to the view of the late Seamus Mallon, that violence is unjustifiable and counterproductive and that the real challenge now is to unite the people in the North in peace, mutual respect, and friendship rather than trying to prematurely unite the two parts of the island.  It's about uniting people, not uniting pieces of ground, as both Mallon and John Hume used to say.  

Shared Island 

On that basis, it is fair to assume that Biden as president will be supportive of the new policy of Taoiseach Micheal Martin which talks about a Shared Island rather than the imminent united Ireland being pushed by Sinn Fein and echoed by some politicians in the U.S. who really should know better. 

Martin's Shared Island policy announced two months ago is all about dialogue and cooperation between north and south, based on the principles of the Good Friday Agreement. With a new generation which has no experience of The Troubles now coming of age in the north and the south, Martin wants to promote a different dialogue.  

The plan is to hold regular meetings to make that happen. To reassure Unionists that this is not a covert mission to push a united Ireland.  Martin said that a border poll would not be on the Irish government's agenda for the next five years (this government's term in office). 

Instead he gave examples of the many areas where deepened cooperation could be beneficial, in health, food, tourism, transport, etc. And he made it clear that the Irish government is prepared to put its money where its mouth is.  

A Shared Island Fund of €500 million will be provided by the Irish government over the next five years for Shared Island projects, much of it to be spent in the North. Improving the motorway through the north to Donegal (which is part of the Republic) and cross border waterways projects in tourism are examples of where the money could go.  

It's easy to be cynical about this generous offer and far too easy to make simplistic demands for an immediate border poll because of Brexit, as Sinn Fein has been doing.  Based on what he has had to say up to now, we can be confident that Joe Biden will recognize that.


Brexit is a complex problem, and how it is solved will be of vital importance to Ireland north and south.  It should not be seen as a handy opportunity to push for an early border poll.  That's only going to make a bad situation worse, and it is more than likely that Biden sees that.  

On that score, it was interesting to note that over the past couple of weeks the president-elect has talked to the taoiseach, the British prime minister, the French president, the German chancellor, and the EU (via the president of the European Council).  

One can assume, therefore, that he is up to speed on how difficult the Brexit situation is for everyone.  There is much more involved than just the Irish border, important though that is. 

One would hope that this will produce a more nuanced approach by the Biden administration.  Simply saying that there won't be a U.S.-U.K. trade deal after Brexit if it means a hard border in Ireland -- "a guarded border" -- is not enough. It's solutions we need, not threats.  

What is essential is an understanding of the British position, even if we all think Brexit is mad.  The fact is that a majority of the British people voted for Brexit and Boris Johnson is implementing that.  

It has created a problem in Ireland because the south is still in the EU but the North will be out.  But that does not mean Brexit should not happen.  Not if you believe in democracy -- and we've been hearing a lot about that in the U.S. in the last few weeks.  

The "Irish backstop"

It's worth remembering how we got to this point, something we outlined in this column last September.  Former U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May's withdrawal agreement was unacceptable to Johnson's Brexiteers because the "Irish backstop" it contained could have kept the whole of the U.K. tied to the EU so that a border in Ireland would be unnecessary.  To avoid this, Johnson negotiated the Northern Ireland protocol as part of a new withdrawal agreement. 

Under the protocol, the Northern Ireland economy effectively would be part of both the EU and the U.K.  It would have free access to and from the U.K. market but would continue to apply EU customs and standards after Brexit which would make border checks in Ireland unnecessary. 

The problem is that after the rest of the U.K. leaves the EU in a few weeks and global goods start arriving in Britain, there has to be a way of preventing them arriving in the North and then crossing an open Irish border into the EU.

To get around this Johnson's protocol agreed that some checks would be needed on goods arriving in the North from the U.K., in other words, a border in the Irish Sea that would apply EU tariffs and standards.    With the protocol added in, Johnson got his withdrawal agreement through Westminster and the U.K. finally was on the way out.  But even at the time there were serious doubts about the workability of what had been agreed.    

Within months Johnson was reassuring unionists that he would never allow trade inside the U.K. (which includes the North) to be limited by rules from an outside body (the EU).  There were clear signs even then that Johnson was going to alter what he had signed up to, despite it being a legal agreement. 

That happened in September with his Internal Market Bill, designed to preserve internal free trade across the U.K.   That means there cannot be a border of any substance in the Irish Sea and therefore the EU would require a land border of some kind in Ireland.   And that's what set Irish America off.  

It is still possible that a last-minute bare-bones deal will be agreed this week or next between the U.K. and the EU which will solve the Brexit conundrum.  It's a big ask, but it's possible.  

Until we see the details we won't know what the implications of that would be for the Irish border.  But making threats about stopping a post-Brexit U.S.-U.K. trade deal is not going to get us anywhere.