One of Boris Johnson’s ministers has hit back at senior members of the US Congress, as tensions flare between the two countries over Downing Street’s decision to rewrite the Northern Ireland protocol.
Conor Burns, a Northern Ireland minister and close ally of Boris Johnson, the UK prime minister, said some US politicians risked empowering violent elements within the province in their public statements over the protocol.
Johnson’s decision has sparked anger in Dublin and Brussels and now risks generating a rift between London and Washington, where senior Democrats and Republicans have criticised the UK government in recent days.
Several members of Congress have issued statements warning about the consequences of ripping up the Northern Ireland protocol, with some claiming that Johnson is putting the entire peace process at risk.
Burns said, however, that he thought such language itself would give encouragement to those who want to undermine the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
Speaking to the Financial Times in Washington, he said: “There is a lot of lazy talk going on here that what we’re doing with the protocol is endangering or imperilling peace.”
He added: “Everybody should be very temperate in their use of language. Remember that voices can echo and can encourage people who don’t have the interests of stability and calmness and order at heart.”
Johnson published his proposals, which would end most checks on goods travelling from Great Britain to Northern Ireland at Irish Sea ports, on Monday night. The new legislation would undo the compromise the prime minister himself reached with Brussels in 2020, which was designed to allow the UK to leave the EU without establishing a hard border on the island of Ireland.
British ministers hope that renegotiating the protocol will allow the Democratic Unionist party to re-enter the Northern Irish power-sharing agreement following the electoral success last month of the nationalist Sinn Féin.
But Johnson’s decision has met with criticism from Dublin, Brussels and even some within his own party. The EU has threatened economic retaliation, leading Johnson to warn Brussels against triggering a trade war.
The new proposals have also caused consternation in Washington, where many politicians speak proudly of their Irish ancestry and take an active interest in relations between Ireland and the UK.
A group of representatives from the bipartisan Congressional Friends of Ireland group released a statement on Tuesday warning: “The introduction of legislation in the United Kingdom undermines the Northern Ireland protocol, threatens international law and, most concerningly, could jeopardise the almost 25 years of peace established by the Good Friday Agreement.”
Bob Menendez, the Democratic chair of the Senate foreign relations committee, called Johnson’s decision “an irresponsible move that threatens the 24 years of peace”.
Johnson dispatched Burns, a Catholic who was born in Belfast, to smooth ruffled feathers in Washington and to make sure members of Congress and the Biden administration are kept up to date with the British government’s decision-making process.
Democrats in Congress have previously warned they would block a UK-US trade agreement if the British government ripped up the protocol. Though with such an agreement now looking like a distant prospect, those warnings have been more scarce in recent days.
Burns said he believed many in the US government agreed with the UK on the need for a negotiated agreement between London and Brussels. But he urged members of Congress to be “incredibly cautious and judicious in their use of language”.
“There is nothing that suggests to me that tidying up the movement of goods around our country should imperil what has been 24 and a bit years of a transformed Northern Ireland,” he said.