There was a collective sigh of relief across the world as President-elect Joe Biden made his victory speech. In Ireland, that relief was accentuated both by Biden’s Irish ancestry and, more importantly, by his position on Brexit.
Biden is adamant that any post-Brexit trade deal must not compromise peace in Northern Ireland. Many feel that this position bodes well for a deal between the UK and EU rather than a no-deal Brexit.
The question of what happens to the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland has long been a sticking point in Brexit talks. The withdrawal agreement signed by the UK and EU included a protocol guaranteeing that there would be no customs posts at the Irish border. This is deemed essential to protect the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.
Why the border matters
Historically, the 300-mile border was the focus and symbol of the conflict in Northern Ireland. Partition was supported by unionists who wished to remain in the UK and opposed by nationalists who sought a united Ireland with no border. The border was heavily secured and a frequent target of IRA attacks during the conflict.
When the two sides signed the Good Friday Agreement, under Strand 2, cross-border cooperation was emphasised strongly and the border effectively became invisible. People living on either side could travel freely without security checkpoints between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.
This was all more straightforward when the UK was a member of the EU. But with its departure come questions of what happens to goods travelling between Ireland, which is a member of the EU’s single market, and the UK, which has ruled out remaining in the single market after Brexit. Under the withdrawal agreement, Ireland and Northern Ireland will be treated as a single market area for EU purposes, so there will be no customs checks at the Irish border. However, this necessitates a so-called sea border, to prevent UK goods seeping into the EU via Ireland, undercutting goods produced in the EU.
Therefore, under the agreement, there will be customs checks between Northern Ireland and Britain in order to protect the integrity of the EU single market. This sea border is a source of deep unhappiness and insecurity for unionists in Northern Ireland. They feel it undermines their status in the UK and see it as a step towards a united Ireland. They argue that a solution could be found if the EU and the Irish government were willing to compromise.
Aggravating the situation further, the UK recently indicated that it could renege on the withdrawal agreement. In October, the UK government published the Internal Market Bill – a proposed piece of legislation that sets out trading arrangements between the four constituent parts of the UK at the end of the Brexit transition period. It controversially includes a provision to unilaterally override elements of the UK-EU withdrawal agreement. The appearance of this document raised fears that a no-deal Brexit was increasingly possible. One minister openly admitted this would breach international law.
Where the White House fits in
President Donald Trump has been a vocal supporter of Brexit during his tenure. This has led to a perception among Brexit supporters – including DUP members of the UK parliament – that Trump was their ally. They believed a UK-US trade deal would be completed quickly and easily after Brexit and that non-EU trade would thrive, making a deal with the EU less important for economic security. Trump’s support for Brexit and apparent lack of concern about the Good Friday Agreement gave confidence to the UK government in adopting a hardline approach.
Biden clearly takes a very different view. During the election campaign, he quickly offered support to the Irish government after the UK unveiled the Internal Market Bill. He and the Democrats warned that they would not support a UK-US trade deal unless the withdrawal agreement was maintained and the Good Friday Agreement protected. Biden’s election win therefore greatly increases the prospects of an EU-UK trade deal because the UK can no longer feel as certain of one with the US if it reneges on the withdrawal agreement.
This is not a matter of Biden being “anti-British” or even “pro-Irish nationalism”. He is prioritising the Good Friday Agreement, but he is also committed to multilateralism and diplomacy. He will seek to build alliances, so it is unlikely that he would adopt an adversarial approach to the UK. And the UK’s key role in NATO and the UN mean the UK and US need to work well together for security reasons.
It’s also worth noting that the strength of the “special relationship” between the UK and US has often been exaggerated. Until Trump, US policy favoured EU multilateralism over bilateral preferences – and indeed that preference was a factor in the UK’s decision to apply for EU membership in 1963. Brexit does imply that the UK’s usefulness to Washington has diminished.
It is possible that the UK government always intended to compromise in the EU trade talks at the last minute, after a period of brinkmanship. But Biden’s election undoubtedly increases the chance of a deal and is a sign too of a more stable international environment for Ireland, Northern Ireland and Britain. Little wonder there were sighs of relief at this election result.