LONDON — When Prime Minister Rishi Sunak held his first meeting with President Biden in Indonesia last November, he made a welcome promise to Mr Biden: Britain would negotiate a trade dispute with the European Union over Northern Ireland by April 25, the Good Friday Agreement.
It’s the landmark peace deal that ended decades of sectarian bloodshed in the North — a valuable foreign policy legacy for Democrats and one Mr Biden said he plans to celebrate with a visit to Belfast, Dublin and possibly London in the spring, according to people involved with plans for the administration are familiar.
With the anniversary less than four months away, Mr. Sunak faces an unbearable schedule to deliver on his promise. The issues on the table remain as complex and politically tense as they were for Mr Sunak’s predecessors, Liz Truss and Boris Johnson, neither of whom have come anywhere near breaking the deadlock.
On Tuesday, Mr Sunak’s Secretary of State, James Cleverly, will travel to Washington, in part to update Secretary of State Antony J Blinken on the progress of negotiations between London and Brussels. Those talks are expected to enter a crucial phase after a meeting on Monday between Mr Cleverly and Maros Sefcovic, the European Commission’s vice-president and its chief negotiator.
Both sides agree that the atmosphere for the negotiations – the “mood music” in its hackneyed expression – has improved significantly since Mr Sunak took office last October. The two sides recently reached an agreement to share data, one of the technical issues affecting post-Brexit trade with Northern Ireland.
But the inescapable reality is that Brexit has erected a trade barrier between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, leading to annoying delays at customs checkpoints and other thorny issues. Above all, this includes the question of whether the European Court of Justice, which ensures the application of European law in all member states, should be responsible for the north.
Understand the political situation in Great Britain
This is opposed by hardline Brexit supporters in Sunak’s Conservative Party, who argue it violates British sovereignty, and trade unionists in Northern Ireland who argue it drives a wedge between them and the UK.
Mr Sunak’s pledge to reach an agreement by April came in part in response to pressure from Mr Biden, who has placed the Good Friday Agreement at the heart of US-UK relations. American officials argue tensions over Northern Ireland’s status could jeopardize the hard-won peace there.
For Mr. Biden, a proud Irish-American who often speaks of his roots, a trip to Belfast would be a symbolic pilgrimage. It could also include stops in Dublin and London, where he would reaffirm a “special relationship” between Britain and the United States, strengthened by their shared military support to Ukraine.
In Belfast, Mr. Biden would likely be joined by former President Bill Clinton, who helped broker the deal in 1998; his wife Hillary; and other Democratic figures, including those with knowledge of the plans, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive negotiations. While American officials say they have not made Mr Biden’s visit conditional on a deal, he could skip London if the dispute simmers.
In order to reach an agreement, Mr Sunak has to make a political decision on the role of the European Court of Justice. But analysts said the UK government had not prepared the ground in Northern Ireland or within its own Tory party for what such a compromise would entail.
“The UK government needs clear messages about the realities of post-Brexit trade,” said Katy Hayward, professor of political sociology at Queen’s University in Belfast. “If the Prime Minister is not prepared to challenge the hardliners in his own party on this issue, how can he expect Donaldson to do so in his?”
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Professor Hayward was referring to Jeffrey Donaldson, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, the North’s main pro-union party. It has refused to take part in Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government until Britain revises trade rules known as the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Last week, after meeting Mr Cleverly, Mr Donaldson told the BBC that Britain and the European Union were “nowhere close to an agreement”. An influential member of the hardline wing of the Conservative Party, David Jones, has said the UK government must insist that European law no longer applies in Northern Ireland, a situation he derided as “bizarre and extraordinary”.
With both camps interfering, Mr Sunak faces a double threat: alienating a faction of his party and deepening political disarray in Northern Ireland, which has been without a government since last May’s election because the Democratic Unionists refuse to hold theirs take seats in the Legislative Assembly.
The protocol is the result of careful negotiations after the Brexit vote. It was designed to accommodate the hybrid status of Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom but shares an open border with neighboring Ireland, a member of the European Union. To prevent the revival of a hard border that could reignite sectarian tensions, Mr Johnson had accepted commodity checks flowing into Northern Ireland from mainland Britain.
Unionists complain that these checks, designed to ensure goods meet EU standards, have made life difficult for northern companies. Both sides recognize that there are ways to streamline the process, but Brussels will certainly reject unionists’ calls for the protocol to be scrapped altogether.
Complicating matters further is legislation introduced by Mr Johnson that would unilaterally overturn parts of the protocol if no agreement is reached. Brussels says it violates its post-Brexit deal with London. There have been reports, so far denied, that Mr Sunak’s government may suspend the law.
Pressure from Washington to settle the matter adds another wrinkle to Mr Sunak’s decision – an important one as the United States remains Britain’s closest ally. And the issue’s visibility will only increase with the arrival of a new American special envoy to Northern Ireland in two weeks: Joe Kennedy III, a Massachusetts Democrat and scion of the Irish-American political dynasty.
While Mr. Kennedy’s mandate is limited to economic matters, US officials say he will symbolize the government’s desire to see progress there.
Mr. Sunak is not the only person to take up the Good Friday Agreement as an action-compelling event. On Friday, opposition Labor Party leader Keir Starmer called on the Prime Minister to strike a deal with the European Union. He volunteered that if Mr Sunak lost votes from hardliners in his party, his party would help the government get such a deal through parliament.
Mr Starmer’s offer is, of course, a double-edged sword: Mr Sunak would never want to rely on Labor Party votes to pass legislation. Throwing Labor support behind a deal with Brussels also makes the opposition leader look like a statesman, while highlighting ideological rifts in the Conservative ranks.
“The time to put Northern Ireland above a Brexit purity cult that can never be satisfied is now,” Mr Starmer said in a speech at Queen’s University. “There is a small window of opportunity before April.”