Nothing congeals in Ireland quite so quickly as conventional wisdom, and in the days since Joe Biden was declared President Elect by the US media, the conventional wisdom in Ireland has hardened like concrete: He’s going to shaft the British on Brexit and plant his flag firmly in the old sod of Ballina – take that Boris:
Here, for example, is the foreign Minister, on the radio this morning:
Speaking on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland, Coveney described Biden as a “real friend to Ireland” who has made clear his position on the Good Friday Agreement in any Brexit negotiations.
Coveney also said that Biden’s election could give the UK government “pause for thought” as Brexit talks near an end.
“The US is a close ally of the UK, we know that, but I think the relationship between Donald Trump and Boris Johnson was a close one,” said Coveney.
It’s not just Coveney, either. Here’s the Taoiseach:
Speaking in Enniskillen, Mr Martin said Mr Biden was “steadfast” in his support for the Belfast Agreement and would work with the Government to protect it.
That’s code, intended for British ears, for “don’t you dare try any funny business, Boris, because we have Uncle Sam behind us now”.
But – and this is a serious question – do we really?
In many ways, the Irish Government’s negotiating hand hasn’t changed at all. If you take the view that Democrats are more friendly to Ireland than Republicans are on this issue – a view which is almost universally held, but rarely explained in any convincing way – then it’s worth noting that the Trump administration, even had it been re-elected, would have had to sell the US House of Representatives, controlled by Democrats, on any trade deal to begin with. Just months ago, the line was that Speaker Pelosi would not ratify any trade deal Trump might negotiate with the UK if it undermined Irish interests. That was always a dubious assertion to begin with, but to the extent that it was true, it’s not really any more or less true as a result of the US election.
Second, the US has very limited leverage in this situation, whether we like it or not. What the Irish government is asserting, in effect, is that if there is broad disapproval in Washington of the UK’s approach to the Irish border issue, then there simply will not be a trade deal between the UK and the USA. But there’s absolutely no historical reason to suspect this is true.
For example, decades of alleged British heavy handedness in Northern Ireland did nothing to undermine the US-UK relationship, even as it drew repeated condemnations from Washington. Words have always been cheap, but the US has never, not once in its history, enacted any form of policy sanction on London in relation to Northern Ireland. There’s no particular reason to believe that it will change course now.
Third, the economic and geo-strategic interests of the US are being heavily underplayed by Dublin, which once again struggles to see the world beyond its own borders. The UK remains the US’s most important international ally for several reasons, none of which Dublin – or even the EU as a whole – can hope to replicate.
First, it remains the only other friendly global power capable of providing meaningful military support, with two carrier task forces that can be deployed to a war zone. Second, it is a key member of the “five eyes” intelligence network – the other three members are Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. There is no EU member of that intelligence sharing network.
Third, the UK has already signalled – on Huawei, for example – a reluctance to take quite as hard a line as the US does on China, and Chinese influence. It is absolutely essential for US strategic interests to keep the UK on board the global anti-Chinese alliance on matters of trade and network security.
The Irish Government seems to be making a bet that Biden’s misty-eyed affection for the dew-laden fields of ancient Mayo will over-ride all of these considerations. It’s quite a bet.
The US does possess leverage over Britain in the trade negotiations, but that leverage doesn’t only flow one way. This will probably end up as yet another example of the Irish Government getting miles ahead of themselves in public.