US president Joe Biden’s close ally has said he will try to “convince” Boris Johnson’s government to ditch its plan to override the Northern Ireland Protocol during talks in London.
Congressman Richard Neal, who is leading a US delegation to Europe for a series of meetings, said he would to urge UK ministers on Saturday against any unilateral “breach” of the Brexit treaty.
Mr Neal will also visit Kerry this weekend, where he will meet Education Minister Norma Foley.
It follows a warning from US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who said that the US Congress would not agree to any trade deal if Britain plunges ahead with a plan to “discard” the protocol.
Ms Neal is set to repeat the message to foreign secretary Liz Truss and international trade secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan at discussions in London.
“They haven’t breached it yet. They’re talking about breaching it, so part of my job is to convince them not to breach it,” the top Democrat told The Guardian.
Mr Neal, who arrived in Brussels on Friday as part of a nine-member congressional delegation, also said Mr Johnson should uphold all parts of the Brexit withdrawal deal he signed in 2010.
“The broader occurrence here is that the protocol was duly negotiated by the British prime minister,” he told the Politico website. “It’s an international agreement that should be adhered to.”
“It’s not going to be the words of the UK – it’s going to be their actions,” he added. “I don’t think that Ireland, the Good Friday Agreement and the elections in the north [of Ireland] ought to be held hostage by a disagreement the UK has with the European Union.”
Mr Johnson and Ms Truss have insisted they do not plan to tear up the protocol completely, but aim to unilaterally “fix” it through new legislation to override parts of the agreement with Brussels.
The foreign secretary said earlier this week the legislation would create a “green channel” for goods travelling from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. Only goods destined for the Republic of Ireland would be subject to customs checks.
Ms Pelosi said on Thursday that she had previously warned Mr Johnson and Ms Truss that if they choose to “undermine” the Good Friday Agreement, then Congress “cannot and will not support a bilateral free trade agreement with the UK”.
DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson said Ms Pelosi’s intervention over the protocol row was “unhelpful” – but Sinn Fein’s vice president Michelle O’Neill “very much welcomed” the senior US figure’s remarks.
Both leaders met Taoiseach Micheal Martin for talks in Belfast on Friday, as the impasse over power-sharing arrangements at Stormont rumbled on.
Mr Martin urged the DUP to help form Northern Ireland Executive as soon as possible, even if the unionist party wanted to engage in “parallel discussions” over the protocol.
The Irish premier said it was “unheard of in a democratic world that that parliament would not convene in the aftermath of an election”, adding: “We can’t have a situation where one political party determines that the other political parties can’t convene in a parliament.”
Mr Martin also accused the UK government of moving “too far in a unilateral way” over the protocol, amid warnings of a trade war ahead if the two sides cannot agree a compromise.
He told the BBC: “I spoke to Boris Johnson and I have to nail this, this idea that somehow the European Union is being inflexible on this is just not the truth – it doesn’t stack up.”
But Mr Donaldson said he had told the Taoiseach that he is not interested in a “sticking plaster” approach to solving problems with border checks.
“It has to be fundamental change which respects Northern Ireland’s place within the UK internal market, and nothing short of that will suffice,” said the DUP boss.