Downing Street has insisted that its threat to override the Brexit withdrawal agreement will not undermine the peace process in Northern Ireland, after US presidential favourite Joe Biden warned that a future trade accord is off the table if Westminster does not respect the Good Friday Agreement.
In his first direct intervention in the row over Boris Johnson’s spat with Brussels, the Democrat candidate to replace Donald Trump tweeted last night: “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 US and UK must be contingent upon respect for the Agreement and preventing the return of a hard border. Period.”
His comments echoed warnings from House speaker Nancy Pelosi and Democrat members of Congress, who have been vocal in their opposition to a trade accord between the two countries if the UK acts in a way that it believes will undermine the peace in Northern Ireland.
The presidential hopeful’s intervention sparked an angry reaction from Brexiteers, including former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith who said he would not “take lectures” on the peace process from Mr Biden and advised him to focus on “the need for a peace deal” in riot-hit US cities.
But Downing Street took a conciliatory tone, stressing that it would “engage” with US partners to ensure that its position is understood.
“The prime minister has been clear throughout that we are taking these steps precisely to make sure that the Belfast Agreement is upheld in all circumstances and any harmful defaults (from the withdrawal agreement) do not inadvertently come into play,” said a No 10 spokesman.
“We continue to remain absolutely committed to no hard border and no border infrastructure between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.
“We will continue to engage with our US partners on a bipartisan basis to ensure that our positions are understood.”
Foreign secretary Dominic Raab has gone to Washington to brief secretary of state Mike Pompeo and Ms Pelosi on the government’s plans, but has not met with Mr Biden.
Brexit-backing Tories gave short shrift to Mr Biden’s comments.
Mr Duncan Smith said: “We don’t need lectures on the Northern Ireland peace deal from Mr Biden. If I were him I would worry more about the need for a peace deal in the USA to stop the killing and rioting before lecturing other sovereign nations.”
And former Brexit secretary David Davis said: “Perhaps Mr Biden should talk to the EU since the only threat of an invisible border in Ireland would be if they insisted on levying tariffs.”
Conor Burns tweeted: “Hey Joe Biden, would you like to discuss the Good Friday agreement? It is also called the Belfast Agreement so it doesn’t offend both traditions. Did you actually know that? I was born in NI and I’m a Catholic and a Unionist. Here if you need help.”
But shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy said that Mr Biden’s remark “shows the scale of the damage the government have done to Britain’s standing in the world”.
She added: “They’ve lost trust and undermined co-operation at the moment we most need it — and all to tear up an agreement they negotiated. Reckless, incompetent and utterly self-defeating.”
Any trade agreement between Washington and Westminster would require the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives’ approval before being passed.
On Tuesday, the House’s Foreign Affairs Committee said it was “disturbed” to hear reports of Mr Johnson’s threat to take on unilateral powers to override elements of the withdrawal agreement relating to the Irish border in a way which the government admits would breach international law.
In a letter to the prime minister, the committee said: “Many in the United States and in Congress consider the issues of the Good Friday Agreement and a potential US-UK Free Trade Agreement inextricably linked”, adding that if the UK government’s reported plans went ahead it would be “difficult to see” how its conditions for a future accord would be met.
They concluded: “We therefore urge you to abandon any and all legally questionable and unfair efforts to flout the Northern Ireland protocol of the Withdrawal Agreement and look to ensure that Brexit negotiations do not undermine the decades of progress to bring peace to Northern Ireland and future options for the bilateral relationship between our two countries.”