The British foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, has accused the EU of trying to erect a border down the Irish Sea as he told a US audience that it was the EU that had been doing most to threaten the Northern Ireland protocol and damage the Good Friday agreement.
His remarks came at the end of a setpiece speech at the Aspen Forum in which he extolled Britain as a force for good determined to build a broader caucus of nations ranged against a dangerous minority determined to ransack the international system.
His Northern Ireland remarks prompted the pro-Irish congressman Brendan Boyle to ask whether the UK was going to continue unilaterally delaying the implementation of the protocol. Boyle said the UK had twice now taken unilateral actions with respect to delaying the Northern Ireland protocol. He asked if the UK government was going to continue with its disruptive cycle.
Raab said: “It is the EU that by trying to erect a barrier down the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and Great Britain that is challenging the spirit of Northern Ireland Protocol and the Good Friday agreement.
He added: “I hope that our friends on the Hill on all sides of the house, and both houses, are equally robust in picking up when the EU undermines the agreement.”
He said the brief invocation of article 16 of the withdrawal agreement by the EU had created “huge tensions across all communities”.
Raab said: “The most overt political threat to the agreement and ultimately the Good Friday agreement has been the politicised way the EU has gone about things.” He also questioned whether the EU had made the same level of unequivocal commitment as the UK on refusing to set up any border infrastructure.
With the EU threatening legal action against the UK, Raab said: “We are still wrestling with the Northern Ireland protocol and trying to make it work. We need to make it work in the interest of all communities. All we have ever done is take targeted precautionary measures that are necessary to respect and uphold the integrity of the UK, and in particular the internal market between Northern Ireland and mainland Britain.”
The UK has twice unilaterally extended grace periods in what it sees as an attempt to iron out unforeseen bureaucratic hurdles in the protocol.
The exchanges on St Patrick’s Day may not endear the UK to the Biden White House, which has been a staunch supporter of the Irish cause and a sceptic about Brexit. The White House will be monitoring the activities of Lord Frost, the UK minister for EU relations, who is seen by some as intent on renegotiating the agreement with Ireland.
Biden is hosting a virtual bilateral with the Irish premier, Micheál Martin, where alongside the celebrations there is bound to be exchanges about the British approach to the Northern Ireland protocol.
Administration officials at a briefing reminded reporters that Biden on the campaign trail had warned that the Good Friday agreement must not become a casualty of Brexit. Although the senior officials said the US was not taking sides in the dispute between Ireland and the UK, they stressed that the Northern Ireland protocol was legally binding.
Elsewhere in Raab’s speech, he defended the UK’s balanced approach to China: “I think the way we look at it is this: China is here to stay. We don’t believe we are harking back to an old cold war mentality or paradigm.
“There are positives and we ought to look for the areas of constructive engagement – obviously in business and trade. Everyone is more or less doing trade with China.”