N.Ireland casts shadow over first Johnson-Biden meeting

Joe Biden and Boris Johnson hold their first face-to-face meeting Thursday, with the visiting US president expected to deliver a stark warning to the British prime minister not to imperil the fragile peace in Northern Ireland.

The pair’s meeting on Biden’s first overseas tour as president is billed by Downing Street as a chance for the old allies to help shape the post-pandemic world, in areas from climate change to technology and trade.

They will agree a modern version of the 1941 charter signed by their predecessors Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt that determined the new world order after World War II.

But while keen to reaffirm the strength of the two countries’ “special relationship”, Biden has reportedly ordered US diplomats to scold Johnson over his handling of Brexit and its effects on peace in Northern Ireland.

The Times said Washington’s most senior diplomat in London, Yael Lempert, told Brexit Minister David Frost that the UK government was “‘inflaming’ tensions in Ireland and Europe with its opposition to checks at ports in the province”.

Biden’s spokesman Jake Sullivan insisted the president — a proud Irish-American with distant family still in Ireland — would not make “threats or ultimatums” to Johnson.

But he said Biden was “rock solid” in the belief that the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that ended three decades of violence over British rule in Northern Ireland must be protected.

Adding to the pressure on Johnson, EU leaders said they would also bring up the row when they meet at this weekend’s G7 summit, as EU member Ireland said it welcomed US support.

The row centres on new trading arrangements for Northern Ireland introduced in January after the UK left the European single market and customs union.

Under a new protocol for the province, checks are supposed to be carried out on deliveries heading into Northern Ireland from mainland Britain, to prevent goods going into the European single market via neighbouring EU member Ireland.

But unionist communities say the new rules have driven a wedge between the province and the rest of the UK, increasing the likelihood of reunification with Ireland.

London suspended checks earlier this year because of threats to port staff, and the protocol has been blamed for the worst violence in years in the British-run province. 

Talks to resolve the simmering border row broke up in London without agreement Wednesday, with Europe threatening retaliatory action, including tariffs, if the new trading arrangements are not implemented.

– ‘The US is back!’ –

Biden touched down in England on Wednesday night, announcing “The United States is back!” as he outlined the need for global collaboration to rebuild after Covid-19 and to reset diplomatic ties after the Trump era.

The White House said he will announce a “historic” US donation of half a billion Covid-19 vaccine doses for 92 poorer countries, to “supercharge” the fight-back against the global pandemic.

Washington characterised the initiative — which comes as Russia and China also engage in vaccine diplomacy — as a return to multilateral action after the nationalist isolationism of Donald Trump’s presidency.

After the G7 ends on Sunday, Biden will visit Queen Elizabeth II at Windsor Castle and fly to Brussels for summits with the NATO military alliance on Monday and the European Union on Tuesday.

He will finish in Geneva where he will meet Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday.

“We’re gonna make it clear that the United States is back and democracies of the world are standing together to tackle the toughest challenges,” Biden said of his trip.

Biden’s pitch marks a return to traditional US diplomacy after four years during which Trump flirted with autocrats and recast multilateralism as a dirty word.

At his meeting with Putin, Biden said he would “let him know what I want him to know”.

– ‘More stable?’ –

However, some European partners, stung by Trump, may be sceptical about his promise, given friction last month when Washington blocked French attempts at the United Nations to demand a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.

Biden’s ramping up of vaccine donations also follows what critics saw as a long period of hoarding.

The US president’s meeting on the sidelines of NATO with Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan promises to be especially prickly after Erdogan warned the US risks “losing a precious friend”.

Expectations for the Putin summit are so low that simply making US-Russian relations “more stable” would be considered a success, officials say.

The White House sees the extension of the New START nuclear arms treaty in February as an example of where business can be done. Biden also needs the Kremlin to make progress with Iran, which is close to Russia.

Biden blames Russia for the massive SolarWinds cyberattack, election interference, and at the very least harbouring criminals behind ransomware attacks against the vital Colonial fuel pipeline and the US subsidiary of Brazilian meatpacking giant JBS.

Biden will also press Putin about sabre-rattling on the Ukrainian border, the imprisonment of opponent Alexei Navalny, and his support for Belarussian strongman Alexander Lukashenko.

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