The silence that tells Joe Biden who his real allies are

Irish reluctance to support Ukraine presents Unionists with an opportunity to counter American Brit-bashing over the Protocol reforms

This article is taken from the August/September 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Ukraine’s existential struggle with Vladimir Putin relies in part on what is being built inside a factory off a drab industrial estate in a corner of East Belfast. Since Russia invaded in February, thousands of NLAW anti-tank missiles have been sent to Ukraine, where they have been used to lethal effect in destroying Russian armour.

The Ukrainians have also deployed Starstreak surface-to-air missiles to reduce the threat from Russian aircraft that have been bombing both military and civilian targets. Both weapon systems are constructed by the French arms manufacturer, Thales, at its base in eastern Belfast which Boris Johnson visited back in June. 

He came to thank the firm for building the anti-tank rockets that proved decisive repelling Russian armoured columns menacing Kyiv and Kharkiv in the first few weeks of Putin’s “special military operation”. About 135 miles south there are other anti-tank weapons lying idle in what used to the British Army’s main camp in Ireland and is now the HQ of the Republic of Ireland’s defence forces. 

These weapons will not end up in Ukrainian hands and will lie dormant in the armouries of the Curragh because although the Irish Republic has small but highly regarded professional armed forces, the state has been unaligned since its inception. The Irish Constitution sees to it that not a single bullet, let alone a bazooka, will be handed over to the Ukrainians fighting for the survival of their country.

Unionists in Northern Ireland have not been slow to point out the contrast between the deployment of NLAW and Starstreak by the Ukrainian military, and the images posted on Twitter by an ex-Irish Army soldier of stockpiles of unused anti-tank weapons piled up inside the Curragh. 

They point (with some justification) to the double standards of the Dublin Government which berates the British over recent moves to replace the Northern Ireland Protocol and their potential to break international law while it doesn’t join the international community in providing military assistance to a democratic nation fighting for its existence. 

But while Dublin has not lifted a finger, militarily, to aid Ukraine, the coalition government has been doing a bit of “weaponising” elsewhere, most significantly across the Atlantic. 

The Irish Government alongside the Irish-American lobby in the US Congress has been seeking, with some success, to persuade the Biden administration to join its campaign against the UK’s push to override the Protocol. 

It is a line to which Joe Biden is naturally receptive. As far back as September 2020, the then Democratic presidential candidate was warning the British that, “any trade deal between the US and UK must be contingent upon respect for the Agreement and preventing the return of a hard border.”

President Biden has since pledged that he is “only a phone call away” if Dublin needs him to put manners on Perfidious Albion and its plot to undermine the post-Brexit trade deal. Why then does the Conservative government risk a trade war with the EU and a possible free trade agreement with the USA in its quest to reform the Protocol? The answer in one word is stability.

The Protocol has destabilised Northern Ireland and its power sharing system that requires that both communities — unionist as well as nationalist — to support it. The unionist parties believe the Protocol has decoupled Northern Ireland economically and constitutionally from Great Britain. All goods coming from the British mainland into the province are now subject to EU customs checks, even those to be consumed within Northern Ireland, with any disputes over trade and other matters in the region to be adjudicated by the European Court of Justice. To unionists, it feels as if the smallest of the four UK nations is being inexorably pulled away from the Union and into the EU’s orbit. 

to many unionists, as also to BBC and Channel 4 News producers and reporters, it appears the pro-Union population is being caught in a diplomatic pincer movement with the combined forces of Dublin, Brussels and Washington ranged against them. Yet the Ukraine war provides unionism with an opportunity. Already some in Washington are questioning the wisdom of the White House’s Brit-bashing. First up was John Bolton, the former US national security adviser, who wrote in the Telegraph in June that America’s interests lie in siding with the UK, its most important Nato ally.

Mr Bolton characterised the anti-British rhetoric over the Protocol from the likes of the Congressional Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, and US Congressman and friend of Gerry Adams, Richard Neal, as “distant from hard reality”. He said the EU’s use of the Protocol to lord it over Northern Ireland was like “allowing Canada to dictate terms of trade between Alaska and the Lower Forty-eight states of the USA”.

Referencing Ukraine, Bolton reminded the White House who was providing military support for Kyiv and who wasn’t:

What Washington really needs strategically and politically is a strong UK, helping to lead the Nato alliance both in the immediate crisis and long term, in reinvigorating the special relationship on a global basis after years of tensions. With all due respect, Ireland is not a Nato member. Even as Finland and Sweden apply for Nato membership, Ireland remains mute. That is certainly Ireland’s choice; so are the consequences. 

Less than a month after Bolton’s observations, the former CIA director and senior diplomat Mike Pompeo told a Policy Exchange gathering in London that interventions by the likes of Pelosi and Neal were “undermining” the Belfast Agreement. 

Pompeo went so far as to say that the British pursuit of an alternative to some of the more controversial and Union-threatening aspects of the Northern Ireland Protocol was designed to save the Belfast Agreement, a deal which is predicated on the support of all sides in the province — including unionists. 

With the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, which aims to unilaterally amend parts of the original deal, continuing its passage through Westminster, whoever emerges as Boris Johnson’s successor will have to face down threats of a trade war from Brussels and the blockage of a transatlantic trade deal from Washington. 

The new PM could start by reminding the White House of the UK’s pivotal role in arming and training Ukraine’s military to resist Russian aggression while some of the Biden administration’s new-found EU friends are funding Putin’s war effort by buying Russian gas. There may also be merit in reminding Washington which country still backs America in other potential conflicts in the Pacific. 

Among the contenders, even a one-time Remainer such as Jeremy Hunt has insisted the government should continue with the legislation that will radically alter the Protocol. On the Sunday before the climax of the Ulster loyalist marching season, Hunt told LBC (and in turn Brussels): “I think we have to be very clear with the EU that no British prime minister could allow a situation where we don’t have an internal market, where businesses from England can’t export freely to businesses in Northern Ireland.”

so far at least, this summer marching season has been relatively peaceful. While there is almost universal opposition to the Protocol across the Unionist community, it appears one thing Boris Johnson’s decaying administration did get right, just before his defenestration, was its move to bring in the Bill that can change the post-Brexit agreement. 

More seasoned observers of Northern Ireland than are to be found in London newsrooms and editorial circles agree the legislation has bought some time for the main unionist party, the DUP, to bolster its argument that political pressure can work. The potentially violent mass demonstrations against the Protocol were called off before the Assembly election in May. There has been no return to the streets since then.

That is why the DUP refuses to go back into a power-sharing executive with nationalists in an administration led by a new Sinn Fein First Minister. The DUP is using its veto on the Stormont institutions to pressurise the government to dump those aspects of the Protocol which they believe threatens the Union.

It would of course be strategically disastrous if the DUP were tempted to hold on until late into the autumn and go for another election just after the legislation goes through. It is likely that this scenario would probably end in a bigger vote for Sinn Fein and the near total demise of its nationalist rival, the SDLP. 

In terms of building alliances in Westminster and appealing to Tory MPs sceptical about the DUP’s intentions, it might also be strategically wise for the party to re-enter the Northern Ireland executive shortly before the ink is dry on the legislation as a sign of good faith.

After Boris Johnson’s exit there was delight among the political and media classes in Dublin and calls for a “reset” in Anglo-Irish relations — code for a new prime minister being more compliant over the Protocol and the EU’s demands on Northern Ireland. There will be flattery combined with warnings about the Taoiseach picking up the phone to Uncle Joe in DC, to bend the will of Whitehall. 

Whoever walks into 10 Downing Street should hold their nerve and resist. They will be standing up to friends and allies, some of whom, when it comes to the defence of Ukraine, have been idle bystanders.

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