Brexit and the Irish Issue—the American Dimension

Boris Johnson (Alexandros Michailidis /

by Robert E. Hunter

In a cliffhanger just before the summit meeting of European Union leaders, the EU and the British government have finally (and once again) reached a deal on the terms and conditions under which the United Kingdom will leave the EU, scheduled for no later than October 31. But the game is not over until it’s over, and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in Northern Ireland has said it will oppose the deal at a rush session of the British parliament this Saturday (October 19). Because it is highly unlikely that any Brexit agreement can pass the House of Commons without the DUP and its 10 votes, the party’s opposition to this deal’s provisions on the future of relations between the two parts of Ireland could spell yet another parliamentary defeat on Brexit for Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party.

While this is primarily a matter of internal British politics and of Britain’s relationship—or likely soon to be “non-relationship”—with the EU, there is an important U.S. angle that no one can ignore.

On Wednesday, Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, weighed in on Brexit. Once again, she linked it to the prospect of a future U.S.-UK trade deal, a centerpiece of post-Brexit ambitions and a significant selling point used by those campaigning to get the UK out of the European Union. However, according to Pelosi, “there won’t be any trade agreement that violates the Good Friday Agreement [of April 10, 1998].” (This was the agreement between London and Dublin, on the one hand, and among the contending factions in Northern Ireland, on the other hand, which effectively ended the long-standing “Troubles” between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland.) Pelosi has been quite consistent in warning the British government against trying to pull a fast one. In August, she said that:“If Brexit undermines the Good Friday accord, there will be no chance of a U.S.-U.K. trade agreement passing the Congress.”

From London’s perspective, Pelosi’s comment is just the United States once again butting in on UK policy toward Ireland, where it is not welcome. But Pelosi’s warning needs to be taken seriously by the Brexiteers, and not just those willing to see a “no-deal” outcome on October 31 if Boris Johnson can’t get his new deal through parliament. Both houses of the U.S. Congress are almost certain to block a U.S.-UK bilateral trade deal unless the Irish issue is resolved fairly. There is little daylight on this matter between the two U.S. political parties. Further, even if the DUP caves into Johnson’s pressure and agrees not to block his Brexit agreement, unless “fairness” is acknowledged by the Irish across the board, there will still be hard feelings in both parts of the island and risks to the hard-won political accommodation between Protestant and Catholic communities in the north. Result? Finis U.S.-UK trade deal.

John Humes Role in Getting America Involved

U.S. interest in what happens in the two parts of Ireland and their relationship with one another has a long pedigree. U.S. efforts to work for peace in Northern Ireland and reconciliation with the Republic are ably chronicled in a recent book by Irish journalist Maurice Fitzpatrick: John Hume in America. It highlights the leading role that Hume, a Northern Irish Catholic, played for more than three decades, which earned him the 1998 Nobel Peace Prize. From his early days he was committed to a political rather than violent course to advance not just Catholic civil rights in Ulster but reconciliation between the two religious communities. He also saw this as the only practical path to eventual unification with the Irish Republic.

Hume’s great inspiration was to envision a direct role for the U.S. government in the struggle, not just because of the large (mostly Catholic) expatriate community in America but because of Washington’s close ties to both London and Dublin and its political weight in both capitals.

Enter the Four Horsemen

Hume’s first recruit, in the early 1970s, was Senator Edward Kennedy, whom he convinced both to support a U.S. political role in peacemaking and to oppose the Provisional IRA’s U.S. fundraising—which in Irish parts of Boston were dubbed “jars in bars” ( i.e., contributions in Boston Irish watering-holes). House Speaker Tip O’Neill was next, with his deep Irish heritage. Then New York Governor Hugh Carey joined up and finally New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan who, while also a Democrat, had served in the Nixon White House. They were soon called the Four Horsemen, after the legendary Notre Dame football backfield.

These efforts paid off. Their first goal was to delegitimize the PIRA’s fundraising in America. Then they pushed for a direct U.S. government role in fostering a peaceful solution to the Troubles. President Jimmy Carter, with his dedication to human rights, in August 1977 made the first formal U.S. statement on the subject (which, as a former aide to Ted Kennedy and member of the Carter National Security Council staff responsible for Europe, I tweaked and then shepherded through the White House). Carter pledged U.S. efforts to promote peaceful reconciliation and, as carrot, promised that “in the event of…a settlement, the U.S. Government would be prepared to join with others to see how additional job creating investment could be encouraged, to the benefit of all the people of Northern Ireland.”

Later, President Ronald Reagan also joined the team, notably encouraging UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to take a softer line and visiting the birthplace of Irish ancestors he had not known he had until told by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which gives each new U.S. president a fully researched pedigree.

President Bill Clinton followed suit. The Four Horsemen, led by Kennedy and O’Neill, pressed him to issue a U.S. visa to the (former terrorist supporter) Gerry Adams, the British government’s leading bête noire in Northern Ireland. Reassured by John Hume, Clinton took a chance—despite apoplexy in both London and the U.S. State Department—and this step did help facilitate a ceasefire. Clinton also appointed former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell to a new post as U.S. Special Envoy for Northern Ireland, where he played a major role during negotiations on the crucial April 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

Americans as Midwives

None of this history is to suggest that the United States made that agreement happen. But U.S. political leaders of both parties could claim roles as midwives. It should thus not be surprising that the U.S. Congress would strongly oppose anything in Brexit that could risk undercutting the Good Friday Agreement or the conflict-dampening economic prosperity in both parts of Ireland that was stimulated by their both joining the European Union in 1973 (Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom), with an open border. Sacrificing that open border on the altar of Brexit—even psychologically—would be a major blow to hopes all across Ireland.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson and other Brexiteers may succeed in getting the latest Brexit deal through parliament. Even so, they will need to look over their shoulders at Washington. Like his predecessor as prime minister, Theresa May, Johnson has put great stock in a U.S.-UK trade agreement that he argues is sure to follow Brexit, even though President Donald Trump, who practices divide-and-rule in Europe, has been less forthcoming. The U.S. Congress is making Johnson’s task even more difficult—as well it should, given the stakes for all of Ireland.

Robert E. Hunter

Robert E. Hunter served as US ambassador to NATO (1993-98) and on the National Security Council staff throughout the Carter administration, first as Director of West European Affairs and then as Director of Middle East Affairs. In the last-named role, he was the White House representative at the Autonomy Talks for the West Bank and Gaza and developer of the Carter Doctrine for the Persian Gulf. He was Senior Advisor to the RAND Corporation from 1998 to 2011, and Director of the Center for Transatlantic Security Studies at the National Defense University, 2011-2012. He served on the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board and is a member of the American Academy of Diplomacy.