NEW YORK — Tony Blair has been “explaining” the U.K.’s position on the controversial post-Brexit Northern Ireland protocol to skeptical foreign allies, according to a senior British diplomat.
Amid a bitter ongoing dispute with the EU, it was revealed earlier this month that the former British prime minister — who won three elections as Labour leader and was a vocal champion of the U.K. staying in the European Union — has been providing “assistance” alongside former Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern.
Further detailing that work on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York this week, the U.K. diplomat said: “Tony has certainly been explaining to the Europeans and the Americans that the British government has a real point on the trading aspects of the Northern Ireland protocol.”
The U.K. has been locked in months of wrangling with Brussels over the protocol, which imposes post-Brexit checks on British goods entering Northern Ireland.
London argues that the setup is overly bureaucratic, and cites the deep opposition it has faced from unionist politicians in the region. It’s devised domestic legislation that would let ministers ignore parts of the protocol, triggering anger in Brussels and Dublin.
The EU counters that the U.K. signed up to the painstakingly-negotiated arrangement and, while it’s proposed a series of changes to the way the protocol works in practice, sees it as the only way to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland while also protecting the bloc’s single market.
U.S. President Joe Biden — whose administration has made clear it wants the U.K. to keep talking to the EU to find a solution — raised the protocol Wednesday in a meeting with British Prime Minister Liz Truss at the U.N. General Assembly.
Downing Street consistently stresses it is at one with the White House on the need to protect the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, the historic 1998 Northern Ireland peace accord. But British officials argue that the U.S. side does not always recognize this as a separate entity from the Northern Ireland protocol.
Both Biden and Truss stressed their joint desire to protect the agreement as they posed for cameras before their meeting, with the U.S. president telling Truss: “We are both committed to protecting the Good Friday Agreement of Northern Ireland. And I’m looking forward to hearing what’s on your mind.”
The same U.K. diplomat argued that Blair, as a key player in the Northern Ireland peace process, was well-placed to explain “why there’s no danger, why it’s not about the Good Friday Agreement.”
And they added: “He’s explaining why the EU’s proposals will not work. He doesn’t agree with the government on every point, but he certainly has been a helpful voice in that and I’m sure he will go on being so.”
Blair’s office declined to comment.
While the British side continues to repeat the mantra that it wants a negotiated solution to the row as soon as possible, there are signs it may be bracing for the long haul, after last week vowing to keep waiving checks required under the protocol, which it has repeatedly postponed.
With the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement looming in 2023, the diplomat said of Biden: “If you look at the calendar, you will conclude that next year there might be an obvious reason to visit Europe if things come good.” U.K. officials said they expected the 25th anniversary — which is still more than six months away — to act as a “key decision point” on the protocol.
A Downing Street spokesperson said after the Biden and Truss meeting that the pair agreed “the priority must be protecting the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement and preserving the gains of peace in Northern Ireland,” while a statement from the U.S. said the two leaders had “affirmed their shared commitment to protecting the gains of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.”
Downing Street said Ukraine had dominated discussions while the protocol had only featured as a short segment.
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