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Breaking the Northern Ireland protocol would be 'completely unacceptable', says US congressman

US congressman Brendan Boyle spoke to The Journal on Brexit, Afghanistan, and polarised politics.

Image: Shutterstock/Jonny McCullagh

IT WOULD BE “completely unacceptable” for the United Kingdom to abandon the Northern Ireland protocol, a US congressman has said.

Democrat Brendan Boyle said the UK must “live up” to the protocol that it agreed to with the EU on Northern Ireland, which deals with keeping the border open between Ireland and the North.

Instead of checks along the border, goods coming into Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK are inspected at Northern Ireland ports and can then be moved around the island under the terms of the protocol.

Leaders in Westminster and Stormont want to see the protocol renegotiated, claiming that it is dividing Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK, but the EU and Irish government are opposed.

On Friday, Taoiseach Michéal Martin and DUP Leader Jeffrey Donaldson held talks in Dublin over the protocol, with Donaldson saying he told the Taoiseach that unionists’ relationship with the rest of the UK is “being harmed on a daily basis by this protocol”.

The Taoiseach said he acknowledged the unionists’ concerns but that the current UK-EU trade agreement has the necessary mechanisms to resolve the issues around the protocol. 

In an interview with The Journal, Brendan Boyle said that “the UK, and specifically this British government, negotiated the Northern Ireland Protocol, signed the deal, then campaigned and passed the deal through its parliament, so it is clear that the British government, like all sides, needs to live up to that which it negotiated and agreed to”.

Boyle, whose father immigrated to the US from Donegal in 1970, said that it would be “completely unacceptable for the UK or any party to the agreement to renege on it”.

“The only way forward is through the NI Protocol to mitigate the damage that has been caused by Brexit and the hard Brexit that this British government opted for,” Boyle said.

“The US has not been shy about calling this out publicly and we will continue to do so.”

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On the States’ role in the future of Northern Ireland, Boyle said that the US is “always going to maintain a strong interest and an active role in Ireland”.

He said that many of the politicians involved with US foreign policy “believe that the Good Friday Agreement was a major international achievement that wouldn’t have happened without a number of parties but especially the US and that we have a moral responsibility to remain engaged in that effort and to avoid any backsliding into the way things were for decades before the Good Friday Agreement”.

“Irish Americans are part of the mainstream of the US, yet still, for the most part, maintain an interest in what is going on in Ireland today,” Boyle said.

You’ve probably seen more activity over the last few years from those of us who are active on Irish issues than at any time since the 1990s. The reality is, from the White House to Capitol Hill, there are a number of Irish Americans who are still in very influential roles.”

“There is really no segment or group in the US either politically or in society that opposes US engagement in this issue and so at a time of heightened polarisation, this is one of the few issues where members of both parties are able to work together and see things pretty similarly.”

Afghanistan

Speaking hours ahead of the United States’ complete departure from Afghanistan, Boyle said that there are elements of the withdrawal that “could have gone better”.

The US’ final remaining troops and diplomats have officially left Afghanistan, ending a 20-year war after it invaded the country in 2001.

36 Irish citizens have been evacuated from the country since the Taliban took hold of the capital on 15 August – but many others remain.

At least 60 Irish citizens or their family members are still in Afghanistan, alongside 15 Afghans with Irish residency.

“I don’t think there is any scenario in which a withdrawal would have been easy,” Boyle said. “I think in the months and years ahead there’ll be plenty of analysis of what went wrong and what should have been done.”

“We also need to be realistic about the enormous challenge presented in any sort of withdrawal. I do believe leaving Afghanistan is the right decision, as difficult as it may be to watch right now.”

He said that the “biggest intelligence failure” was “believing the Afghan government would last longer than it did”.

“That clearly proved to be inaccurate and so now all of us are attempting to do our best despite the fact that the intelligence got that so dramatically wrong,” he said.

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“Moving forward, we shall see what kind of a country the Taliban want. Do they want to operate in a world environment in which they are treated as a pariah?

“They need a tremendous amount of economic aid internationally. 60% of the Afghan budget is provided internationally through aid, so the Taliban has a lot of incentive to cooperate internationally, but of course we saw how the Taliban operated in the 1990s and they had very little interest in that.

“The Taliban today has to deal with their own extremist threat from ISIS-K and that gives them another incentive to work with the international community and cooperate, so only time will tell.”

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Polarised politics

Later this week, Boyle is addressing the Kennedy Summer School, a festival of Irish and American culture and politics, on the polarisation of US politics, where tensions between Republicans and Democrats are increasingly strained.

“I think Ireland is very fortunate that you’ve not seen the same level of polarisation,” Boyle said.

“Irish politics has so far really avoided what we see in the US, the UK and other western democracies.”

However, he said there is “no guarantee that that would continue into the future because I do think this problem is bigger than and beyond just the US”.

Within the US, there’s “no question that politics today are highly polarised and there are far fewer swing voters today than there were 25 years ago”.

Boyle said the country is in an era that is “very bitterly divided politically”.

Our media environment doesn’t help that. Now, in the US, people who are more conservative are able to only seek out news from conservative news sites that tend to validate their preconceived worldview, and likewise the same happens on the other side.

“Behind the scenes, there still is a lot of bipartisanship on Capitol Hill, it just doesn’t get covered to the same degree,” he said.

“Also, there’s a function of American politics right now in which there can sometimes be a penalty for compromising with the other side – you see the Republican primary electorate punishing and voting out more of their elected officials who try to work with the other side. That’s the state of where we are right now.”

He said that social media has “helped exacerbate internal divisions in US society and has helped spread conspiracy theories, whether it was about the 2020 presidential election or about Covid and the vaccine”.

“In the US, we have a very strong first amendment which protects the right to free speech, but still within the constraints of the first amendment I do believe the US government has to adapt its laws to deal with the unique problems presented by misinformation on social media.

“The challenge obviously is balancing the right to free speech with the right to protect society overall. That is a constant struggle.

“There’s always been a tension of attempting to find that fine line. I think right now, when it comes to social media, we’re not in balance and we are being too permissive to those who are using and abusing social media to do real harm to other people and to society.”

About the author:

Lauren Boland

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