Last week U.S. president Joe Biden arrived in the United Kingdom as part of his first official overseas trip with two clear messages: (1) the “special relationship” is alive and well, and (2) the United States will be watching closely to ensure the Good Friday Agreement (also known as the Belfast Agreement) is preserved. He recently reaffirmed this commitment to the peace agreement both with the Irish prime minister back in March and again together with Boris Johnson during their bilateral meeting. This signaling creates room for renewed U.S. engagement on this thorny issue.
Much has changed in Northern Ireland in the 23 years since the Good Friday Agreement was signed. At the time, President Biden was a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and had pushed successive U.S. administrations to engage on the issue. But as his recent recommitment to the agreement acknowledges, peace is a work in progress. While the 1998 agreement created space for the peace process, the political process on which it rests has seen uneven progress—even before the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union. Post-Brexit negotiations over the status of Northern Ireland and cross-border trade arrangements have further complicated this process. U.S. engagement was crucial in the 1998 negotiations and still has weight in Northern Ireland today as a neutral party; furthermore, continued tensions between two key U.S. allies are not in the U.S. strategic interest in Europe.
A renewed U.S. commitment to stability in Northern Ireland requires moving from rhetoric to policy action and proactive diplomacy. It also requires a keen understanding of the actors involved, the process (both political and Brexit-related), and the broader context—and the evolution of all three.
Many of the same actors are involved in Northern Ireland’s complicated status as were in 1998:
- The unionist side, this time represented by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which opposed the 1998 deal but is now the dominant—if waning—unionist force;
- The republican side through Sinn Féin, which had long been seen as the political arm of the Irish Republican Army but is now politically ascendant in both the North and the Republic of Ireland;
- A cross-community faction in the Alliance Party, now on the rise;
- The UK and Irish governments, whose détente set the stage for the peace process;
- And the United States and the European Union, whose diplomatic activism and open border scheme respectively contributed to the deal.
However, the main people leading these groups have changed, and positions have hardened. A new DUP leadership has taken a harsher approach to the post-Brexit Northern Ireland Protocol (which keeps the region in the EU single market and customs union for some goods) and faces internal upheaval. The UK cabinet has abandoned the 1998 spirit of compromise and established an uncompromising negotiating approach and overall view of the European Union. It stands in violation of the protocol it signed last year and maintains Brussels should be more flexible.
The European Union, unlike in 1998, now has a strong vested interest in the process: safeguarding the integrity of the single market and customs union by controlling what comes into the EU trading area (i.e., into the Republic of Ireland). In response to the United Kingdom disavowing the protocol, the European Union has initiated punitive action to maintain this control, with no certainty London would respect an unfavorable court decision. Meanwhile, the Irish government has conducted intense diplomacy to keep the Northern Ireland border issue highly visible during the negotiations—both in Brussels and Washington—but it now fears the costs of punitive action.
The United States, while a central actor in the 1998 negotiations, has disengaged from this issue in the past decade. Yet the new president is deeply attached to his Irish roots, and both he and Congress have repeatedly reaffirmed support for the Good Friday Agreement and the Northern Ireland Protocol. It remains unclear if the United States will act should conditions in Northern Ireland deteriorate.
Since 1998, the political process has stalled repeatedly. Northern Ireland was without a power-sharing executive in Stormont from 2017 to 2020 and temporarily placed back under direct rule from London. Although capable civil servants maintained minimum services, this meant there was no government in Belfast during most of the Brexit negotiations to help shape the future relationship and Northern Ireland’s future status.
Furthermore, the UK government failed to consider Brexit’s impact on Northern Ireland or other constituent parts during and after the referendum. It remained uninterested in the issue until it needed unionist votes in 2017, and more recently, as it could no longer ignore unionist concerns over the new trading barrier down the Irish Sea.
The prolonged drift of the political process and Northern Ireland’s distinct trade status have now come to challenge the peace process. Recent bouts of unrest, primarily from the unionist camp, have spurred concerns that violence can return to daily life in Northern Ireland. With relationships strained among parties in the executive (primarily between the DUP and Sinn Féin) and between London and Brussels, there is currently little space to discuss peace and political progress in Northern Ireland.
There has also been little outside interest in mediating talks in Stormont or between the European Union and the United Kingdom. U.S. policy has been inconsistent over the last administrations: the Trump administration supported Brexit and made a last-minute effort by appointing a special envoy to Northern Ireland (who visited once), while President Biden has lamented Brexit and has yet to appoint ambassadors to London and Dublin. He has not yet indicated interest in appointing a special envoy.
In 1998, outside actors got involved in the peace process to address a primarily internal issue in Northern Ireland. Today, Northern Ireland seems caught between the United Kingdom and the European Union’s dispute, compounding internal political divisions and Brexit-related acrimony. In addition, deteriorating socioeconomic conditions in Northern Ireland are deepening societal alienation, primarily for young people. Household earnings lag those of the rest of the United Kingdom, and youth employment hovers around 59 percent for 16-24 year-olds. Former U.S. senator George Mitchell, the main U.S. negotiator for the 1998 agreement, had highlighted back then how “economic deprivation is a contributing factor in the problems in Northern Ireland.” He saw the correlation between unemployment and violence, and this remains true today; the kindling of dissatisfaction is simply waiting to be lit.
Another driver of internal division lies in the makeup of the population: demographic changes in Northern Ireland may soon threaten Protestant (unionist) dominance. For the first time, Protestants no longer represented an outright majority of the population in the 2011 census (48 percent Protestant versus 45 percent Catholic households). The number of Catholic children in primary and secondary schools outnumbers Protestants, laying out a future where a majority of the population could be in favor of reunification with the Republic of Ireland. Northern Ireland is currently undergoing its once-in-a-decade census (with results due to be published in 2022), which could exacerbate those tensions.
Priorities for U.S. Action
Rhetorical support for peace and stability in Northern Ireland, affirmed at the U.S.-UK meeting, must now be followed by tangible action—particularly as the UK government seems intent on maintaining its current course (not implementing the protocol). U.S. engagement should work on two parallel policy tracks: addressing UK-EU dynamics and reengaging actors in Northern Ireland.
The escalating tensions between London and Brussels have impaired the proper application of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement and the Northern Ireland Protocol. While the Biden administration does not seek to insert itself in these negotiations, it should still try and gauge where there is leeway and which aspects of the UK position are bluster rather than priorities. A continued war of words (and trade) is not in the U.S. interest, and London’s increasing disregard for international agreements it signed calls into question its dedication to the rule of law (itself reaffirmed in the joint statement). As the UK government seeks a future trade agreement with the United States, the latter can use this leverage to encourage flexibility.
The bad blood between both sides of the negotiations must be isolated to focus on the key political imperatives, leaving the technical talks to lower levels. (There is not much the United States can do there, other than urge the full implementation of border check systems.) Bilateral talks with the European Union to better understand Brussels’ concerns can position Biden and his diplomatic apparatus as potential mediators. Gaining a view of both sides’ priorities could lead to trilateral conversations as well. Appointing qualified ambassadors to all three capitals (Brussels, Dublin, and London) will be crucial in this effort.
The Northern Ireland track requires deeper, longer-term U.S. investment that should start now. In light of the socioeconomic dynamics discussed above, re-skilling toward higher value-added sectors will be crucial. The newly announced bilateral technology partnership, which addresses research and development and “wealth creation,” should focus on the Northern Ireland technology sector to secure a transition to forward-looking industries and job creation.
There is also a continued need for mediation over inter-community relations; victimization on both sides is impairing true reconciliation and desegregation of public spaces. U.S. efforts should center on cross-border community dialogue (political and community leaders, and local activists) to address dire social needs through better service delivery. At the same time, political mediation should incentivize party leaders to place the interests of the people of Northern Ireland above all other considerations and accept basic guidelines for open (even if informal) dialogue. This could include bringing in small groups of political representatives to the United States for frank, private conversations.
Finally, ahead of the census completion, the United States and its European partners (UK, Irish, and EU leaders) can seize an opportunity to pave the way for difficult conversations around reunification should census figures show a significant shift in Protestant and Catholic populations. Some political parties in the North have grown beyond this divide (principally the Alliance Party), but they are not yet powerful enough to ensure a smooth transition.
As Northern Ireland enters its annual marching season—where loyalist groups parade across towns commemorating the victory of William of Orange (a Protestant) over James II (a converted Catholic) in 1690, which inflames tensions with Catholic groups—all stakeholders will again be reminded of the importance of U.S. involvement in Northern Ireland, both in 1998 and today. Actions speak louder than words, and they will be necessary to reach a resolution for old issues and new challenges.
Donatienne Ruy is an associate fellow with the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.