UK Brexit minister Lord Frost warns Joe Biden to stay out of Northern Ireland talks

Chief negotiator tells US Northern Ireland issue is ‘for us to decide and sort out with the EU as we wish’

Jon Stone
Policy Correspondent
Monday 04 October 2021 18:43 BST
Joe Biden Issues Warning Over Northern Ireland Protocol Original Video M200598

The UK's Brexit minister has warned Joe Biden to stay out Northern Ireland Brexit talks, branding the president no more than an "interested observer".

Last month Mr Biden told Boris Johnson not to renege on treaties preventing a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic – warning that the US had "spent an enormous amount of time and effort" on the peace process.

But asked about Mr Biden's stance on the issue at Tory conference Lord Frost said the border question was "for us to decide and sort out with the EU as we wish".

The minister had earlier that day threatened to invoke Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Brexit agreement, which would suspend key parts of the Brexit treaty and could see a hard border emerge.

Asked what role Mr Biden could play in talks, Mr Frost told a fringe event: "I think this is a negotiation between us and the European Union. Outsiders are kind of interested observers, but not more than that."

Lord Frost, who personally negotiated the treaty he now wants to rewrite, added: "I think every country around the world that takes an interest thinks the Belfast agreement is something very important and very worth protecting and we agree with the Americans on that as has been said many times.

"The more the context can be made helpful in support of what we're trying to do to sustain the peace process at a time that's being undermined the better. But I think, ultimately, is for us to decide and sort out with the EU as we wish, and nobody would expect anything different really I think."

On 22 September Mr Biden told media at the White House during a UK visit that that he felt "very strongly" about the issue.

"We spent an enormous amount of time and effort, the United States, it was a major bipartisan effort made," he told media, referring to former president Bill Clinton's key role in the Northern Ireland peace process.

"And I would not at all like to see, nor I might add would many of my Republican colleagues like to see, a change in the Irish accords, the end result having a closed border in Ireland."

Mr Biden's election was a serious blow to Boris Johnson's Brexit ambitions - partly because the US president has made clear he is willing to use his diplomatic muscle on behalf of Ireland and the EU over the border issue.

But the new Democratic administration is also significantly less interested in a trade deal with the UK compared to the one led by Donald Trump, who viewed Brexit more positively. Foreign Secretary Liz Truss on Sunday appeared to concede that a US trade deal was unlikely any time soon and suggested the UK should focus elsewhere.

After a few months out of the limelight the issue of Brexit is likely to make a significant comeback before the end of the year, as the UK seeks more talks with the EU over the Northern Ireland agreement.

The EU has so far refused to come to the table, says it considers the issue settled, and that the UK must implement the protocol as agreed. But Lord Frost used his keynote speech to Tory conference this morning to issue a warning that the UK could act unilaterally.

“We cannot wait for ever. Without an agreed solution soon, we will need to act, using the Article 16 safeguard mechanism, to address the impact the protocol is having on Northern Ireland,” he told the Tory faithful.

“That may in the end be the only way to protect our country – our people, our trade, our territorial integrity, the peace process, and the benefits of this great UK of which we are all part.”

The minister said “intensive” talks would have to lead to a “decision point” around early November.

Northern Ireland has faced shortages of goods imported from the rest of the UK because of the new frictions to trade added by Lord Frost’s agreement.

The situation has also inflamed community tensions, with protests from some loyalists and threats against staff working at ports.

European Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic said in July: “We will not agree to a renegotiation of the protocol. Respecting international legal obligations is of paramount importance.” The EU position is yet to shift on the issue.

Asked about Lord Frost's speech, a European Commission spokesperson told reporters in Brussels on Monday:

"You will not be surprised to hear that we do not comment on the sayings or the statements of our partners or any stakeholders, whatever nature they have and however lyrical or aggressive they may be. We are not going to depart from that position in these specific circumstances at all."

Despite empty shelves, crops rotting the fields, a shortage of lorry drivers, and long queues at petrol stations, Lord Frost was upbeat about Britain's prospects as he toured fringe events stacked full of Tory activists and lobbyists.

He promised to "show Brexit was worth it" by making Britain's economy "work better" than the EU's, stating: "The power of example is very strong."

Asked whether he took responsibility for any of the problems his deal caused, Lord Frost blamed remain campaigners.

"We prioritised getting ourselves out of the backstop and giving the country free choice about where to go to the future and we achieved that," he said.

"We always worried that the things that were imposed on us in this protocol, because we didn't any choice in the matter in the end: The Surrender Act made it impossible for us to leave without some sort of agreement." At the time the government claimed it would leave without a deal no matter what.

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