Queen's Policy Engagement

The 2020 US Presidential Election and Northern Ireland

The role that the United States can continue to play in Northern Ireland has, quite rightly, become the focus of some attention in recent years says guest contributor Andrew Sanders, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Texas A&M University San Antonio.

The 2020 US Presidential Election and Northern Ireland

‘We can’t allow the Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland to become a casualty of Brexit. 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.’

In a little over 200 characters the Democratic Party candidate for President, former Vice President Joe Biden, declared his position on Brexit and brought Northern Ireland back into national and international conversations ahead of a United States Presidential election.  Northern Ireland, although very much an issue of secondary concern to a majority of American voters, has factored into a number of Presidential campaigns in recent years, beginning in 1992 when Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton made a series of pledges on the Northern Ireland situation at the American-Irish Presidential Forum ahead of the Democratic Party’s primary in New York.

The role of the United States of America, particularly elected representatives in the US Congress and the White House, in Northern Ireland is the topic of my 2019 book The Long Peace Process: The United States of America and Northern Ireland 1960-2008.  In this book, I explore the often-complicated diplomatic relationships that existed between the US, UK, and Irish governments as well as the role that Irish affairs played as a domestic political issue for US representatives, particularly those who represented large sections of the often loosely-defined Irish-American community.

The role that the United States can continue to play in Northern Ireland has, quite rightly, become the focus of some attention in recent years.  The UK’s departure from the European Union and the difficulties that the UK government has had aligning of all the necessary practicalities has placed increased importance on a hypothetical new US-UK trade deal, one which President Donald Trump claimed would be ‘fantastic and big’.  Cold water was poured on the idea of such a deal by a bipartisan group of Representatives, who wrote to Prime Minister Boris Johnson on 15 September to emphasize that the size and the fantastic-ness of such a deal would very much depend on Johnson honoring the UK’s existing commitments, as they are perceived in the United States, to Northern Ireland.  They wrote that ‘many in the United States and in Congress consider the issues of the Good Friday Agreement and a potential U.S.-U.K. Free Trade Agreement to be inextricably linked.’

This followed a statement by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, issued the previous week, which declared that ‘Brexit cannot be allowed to imperil the Good Friday Agreement, including the stability brought by the invisible and frictionless border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland.  The U.K. must respect the Northern Ireland Protocol as signed with the EU to ensure the free flow of goods across the border. If the U.K. violates that international treaty and Brexit undermines the Good Friday accord, there will be absolutely no chance of a U.S.-U.K. trade agreement passing the Congress.’  Under the United States Constitution, only Congress has the authority to regulate trade with foreign nations.  Trade agreements must be approved by both the House of Representatives, which Pelosi presides over, and the United States Senate.

These arrangements will, of course, be entirely hypothetical until next year, at which point the newly-elected President Biden or re-elected President Trump will seek to negotiate their UK trade deal.  The question of what Northern Ireland can expect from President Biden has been partially answered in his declaration of support for the Good Friday Agreement.  Biden has a track record of holding the British to account on Irish issues that stretches back into the 1980s and will further concern observers in the UK government.  The response from leading Conservatives is evidence of this concern.

As a Senator serving on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Biden was a key figure during negotiations on the 1985 United States and United Kingdom Supplementary Extradition Treaty and raised a series of pointed questions about UK policy in Northern Ireland, particularly the legality of certain issues such as Diplock Courts, during hearings.  These interventions have drawn social media criticism from Conservatives including MP Alexander Stafford.

Joy Morrissey, a Conservative MP for  Beaconsfield and a dual US-UK citizen, tweeted to suggest that Biden was pandering to the Irish American vote.  She later deleted the tweet. There is, of course, no real evidence of a coherent “Irish American vote”.  This was noted, in a recent New York Times article, by Brian O’Dwyer, vice president of the Irish American Democrats.  President Trump includes a number of Irish-Americans among his most trusted allies, notably Kellyanne Conway, Kayleigh McEnany, Sean Hannity, and, perhaps less recently, Steve Bannon.  The Congressional letter to Boris Johnson was co-signed by Representative Peter King, a retiring Republican Congressman from New York and a prominent member of the Congressional Friends of Ireland.

Trump’s most visible commitments to Ireland are, of course, centered on his property at Doonbeg, where he stayed during his June 2019 visit to Ireland.  The following month, his Ambassador to Ireland Edward Crawford presented his credentials to Irish President Michael D. Higgins.  Two-and-a-half years is an unusually long time for a modern US President to appoint his Irish Ambassador, a highly attractive role for the political supporters who typically populate the upper echelons of the US diplomatic service.  Trump was even slower to appoint his Special Envoy to Northern Ireland, a role that he retained but left unoccupied until former Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney was appointed in March 2020.  Trump had retained the role despite pressure from his original Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, to abolish the office.

Past Special Envoys, most notably Senator George Mitchell, Richard Haass, and Mitchell Reiss, the first three individuals to serve in the role, were instrumental in securing the signing of the Good Friday, or Belfast, Agreement, and then advancing the processes that it set in place.

At a time when Northern Ireland faces a great degree of uncertainty, it is clear that strong and decisive leadership from the United States would be most welcome.


Assistant Professor Andrew Sanders
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Andrew Sanders is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Texas A&M University San Antonio. A PhD graduate of Queen's University Belfast, he is the author of "Inside the IRA: Dissident Republicans and the War for Legitimacy", "The Long Peace Process: The United States of America and Northern Ireland 1960-2008" and the co-author of "Times of Troubles: Britain's War in Northern Ireland".

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