Belfast Telegraph

US Vice-President Mike Pence riles Dublin over backstop stance

US Vice-President Mike Pence with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar
US Vice-President Mike Pence with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar

By Kevin Doyle

The White House has opened up a new front in the Brexit battle, suggesting the Irish Republic and the EU have been disingenuous in negotiations.

Despite being feted on a visit to Dublin, US Vice-President Mike Pence used an appearance alongside the Taoiseach to effectively back Boris Johnson's hardline opposition to the backstop.

"As the deadline for Brexit approaches, we urge Ireland and the EU to negotiate in good faith with Prime Minister Johnson," he said.

He asked that they "work to reach an agreement that respects the UK's sovereignty and minimises disruption to commerce".

The Trump administration has long been a supporter of Brexit, but there was still surprise that Mr Pence would issue such a strident statement while in the company of Leo Varadkar.

Mr Pence was speaking just moments after the Taoiseach had asked him to bring an understanding of the Good Friday Agreement and the backstop back to Washington.

The return of a hard border on this island was described as a "very real risk" by Mr Varadkar. He said Brexit could create barriers to north-south co-operation and risk peace.

"We as a government have to stand our ground on the Agreement. All I ask is that you bring that message back to Washington with you. This is not a problem of our making. It is one we want to solve through an orderly Brexit and a withdrawal agreement that guarantees no re-emergence of a hard border on this island," Mr Varadkar explained.

Sources said the Taoiseach repeatedly explained the Republic's attachment to the backstop during a private 30-minute meeting with Mr Pence.

One official said Mr Pence appeared to have a "good understanding" of the issues and the Irish Government's "commitment to the Good Friday Agreement".

But separate sources admitted the comments by Mr Pence were not what they would have hoped for under the circumstances.

Mr Pence did acknowledge the "unique challenges on your northern border", saying he would encourage the UK and Ireland to ensure that any Brexit deal respects the Agreement.

However, he quickly moved on to promise that the US would strike a trade deal with the UK once it is outside the EU.

This is a controversial topic in the US, where a number of high-profile Irish American politicians are threatening to block a deal if Brexit causes any damage to the Good Friday Agreement.

Among those who have publicly committed to stalling a trade deal is House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Civic and business groups last night called on Mrs Pelosi to only back a UK trade deal that protects the Good Friday Agreement.

The letter is signed by more than 20 civil liberty groups, community organisations, trade unionists and representatives of businesses across Northern Ireland.

A delegation from the consortium will travel to Washington later this month to outline their concerns to speaker Pelosi and other senior US politicians from the main parties in Congress.

In the letter, the groups asked speaker Pelosi to ensure the US Congress scrutinised any future trade deal with the UK "very carefully to ensure full compliance with the 1998 Agreement".

"We urge Congress to satisfy itself that the truly transformational foundations for peace and prosperity here, which were laid with the indispensable aid of the United States, are not undermined in any manner by decisions to be taken in Congress," the letter said.

The groups that have signed the letter include the Committee on the Administration of Justice, the Freight Transport Association (Northern Ireland), the Human Rights Consortium, Londonderry Chamber of Commerce, Manufacturing NI, Disability Action Northern Ireland, Irish Congress of Trade Unions, NICVA, Northern Ireland Retail Consortium, Retail NI and Unison Northern Ireland.

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