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U.S. to stress support for Good Friday Agreement as Brexit strains Northern Ireland's peace

U.S. senators are introducing a resolution on Tuesday reiterating American support for the Northern Ireland peace deal struck more than two decades ago. The resolution was to be unveiled ahead of Saint Patrick's Day amid mounting concern in Washington that a post-Brexit row between London and the European Union is putting the Good Friday Agreement at risk.

The office of Democratic Senator Bob Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, confirmed to CBS News that he and Republican Senator Susan Collins would offer the bipartisan motion on Tuesday. 

Last week, Ireland's minister for foreign affairs and the European Commission's vice president briefed a group of U.S. lawmakers on the latest developments regarding tension over the terms of the Brexit agreement, which came into effect at the beginning of this year, sealing the U.K.'s departure from the regional bloc.

A dispute over implementing new checks on commercial goods moving between the U.K. mainland and Northern Ireland has strained the 1998 Irish peace agreement that ended three decades of bloodshed — "the Troubles" — in Northern Ireland.

Brexit and the Northern Ireland Protocol 

The virtual briefing by the Irish and European officials was with members of the bipartisan Friends of Ireland caucus on Capitol Hill. That group was founded in 1981 to support initiatives in peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland and was influential in securing support in Washington for the peace process.

That peace is now in jeopardy over problems in implementing post-Brexit changes in trade, and in particular by the British government's unilateral decision to postpone implementation of new customs checks for several months beyond the agreed-upon start date in April.

The decision has put the U.K. in breach of the terms of the Northern Ireland Protocol, a provision in the Brexit agreement that London reached with the EU designed to allow continued free movement of goods and people between Ireland, which is an EU member state, and Northern Ireland, which left the EU with the rest of the U.K. in January.

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It took months of often acrimonious negotiations between Brussels and London to hammer out the Protocol, with the EU repeatedly voicing concern that the British government was ready to ride roughshod over provisions of the Irish peace deal. That peace agreement effectively — and highly symbolically — removed all signs of a physical border between Ireland and Northern Ireland 23 years ago.

Borders and warnings

Brexit has prompted a resurgence in discussion of, and calls for, a reunited Ireland. In the run-up to Ireland's national holiday on Wednesday, nationalist party Sinn Féin, whose aim is a reunited, single Ireland, launched an advertisement campaign in the United States calling for a referendum on reunification.

But talk of a reunited Ireland — which would mean the U.K.'s loss of Northern Ireland — worries the mainly-Protestant Unionists, who fear losing the privileges they enjoy thanks to their slim political majority in the North.

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The EU sparked jubilation among unionists in Northern Ireland, and horror in Dublin, in January when, as as European nations struggled to find enough COVID-19 vaccine doses, it threatened to impose a hard border between the North and the Republic of Ireland to block vaccines from leaving EU territory. That ill-advised suggestion was promptly scrapped, but the damage was done.

Outlawed unionist paramilitary groups, which were slow to get on board with the peace agreement in 1998, have now said they're temporarily withdrawing support for the peace deal due to concerns over the implementation of Brexit.

Posters have appeared in many unionist areas of Northern Ireland opposing a Brexit border in the Irish Sea between Britain and the island that makes up both Ireland and Northern Ireland. Such a sea border would simplify customs matters, but underline Northern Ireland's separation from the rest of the U.K.

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Dog walkers walk past freshly painted loyalist graffiti in Belfast city center on January 31, 2021 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Charles McQuillan/Getty

Some of the more sinister posters feature a masked gunman with the phrase: "Our forefathers fought for our freedom and rights. No border in the sea or we continue the fight."

Brexit done, but still a sore point

Tony Connelly, Europe editor at Ireland's national broadcaster RTE and author of "Brexit and Ireland," told CBS News that the current tension is very much part of wider, lingering friction between London and Brussels.

"There are undoubted tensions within the unionist/loyalist community, as well as wider unease among business organizations at the disruptions the Protocol is causing," he says. "There is no sign yet of any immediate resort to violence, but these tensions will have to be carefully managed by the U.K., the EU, the Irish government, and local politicians.

"The problem is that any shared EU-U.K. stewardship is being undermined by wider tensions between London and Brussels, including over COVID-19 vaccines and suspicion on the EU side that the U.K. has a tendency to breach the terms of the Brexit treaties it has signed, including the Protocol, for domestic political gain."

Biden's "unequivocal" support

Ireland's Taoiseach (prime minister) Micheál Martin was expected to update President Joe Biden on the latest post-Brexit developments when the two men speak on Wednesday to mark St. Patrick's Day.  

"President Biden has, of course, always taken a particularly supportive interest in Irish issues," former Irish ambassador to the U.K. and EU, Bobby McDonagh, told CBS News. "Brexit inevitably impacts on the delicate situation in Northern Ireland. The U.K. and the EU (including Ireland) have therefore negotiated a legally binding Northern Ireland Protocol to ensure that the balances of the Good Friday Agreement are respected insofar as possible in the new circumstances. It is essential that the Protocol is implemented effectively and in good faith. The continued interest of the U.S. President and Congress is therefore both welcome and important."

President Biden, some of whose family hails from the west of Ireland, has made no secret of his long-standing support for the Good Friday Agreement.

In response to a question last week about Britain's move to postpone customs checks, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Mr. Biden's support for the deal remained "unequivocal." 

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