On the Sunday Morning show on BBC 1, NI Secretary Brandon Lewis let slip that he’d “spent the week in the US”. He also enlightened us that he visited Northern Ireland “most weeks” but didn’t say for how long. His most recent contributions are in written statements urging the DUP to return to the First Minister post immediately and saying that No, he will not call an Assembly election early. These read as if they’re for the record rather to make any attempt at seriously influencing opinion.
So what was he doing in the States for what apparently was his second visit?
He enjoyed less than blanket coverage, so I’ve been thrown back on his tweets for clues. These are mostly anodyne little captions to photo calls at Harvard and Boston College about encouraging support for NI business and integrated education, safe topics across the pond. The bar could hardly be set lower. He did make a couple of calls on Congress though. One was to Senator Chris Murphy and another to Representative Richard Neal to whom he affirmed – surprise, surprise – his commitment to the GFA and “finding practical solutions to the Protocol”
That could mean something or nothing. Nor do we know what Neal made of him. So what impact did he make?
According to the Sunday Times the House of Representatives is expected to pass a resolution calling on Britain to implement the Northern Ireland protocol and to abandon plans for an amnesty on legacy Troubles killings.
Some 35 congressmen and women, including senior Republican Party members, have co-sponsored the motion before the House foreign affairs committee, which calls for the implementation of the protocol to “help preserve peace and stability on the island of Ireland” and for the prosecution of British soldiers who killed 14 civil rights marchers in Derry on Bloody Sunday in 1972.
Bill Keating, a Democratic congressman for Massachusetts, said he expected Resolution 888 to pass both the committee and the House of Representatives “in the next few weeks when we are back in session”, which would be a rare display of bipartisan co-operation on Capitol Hill.
Keating said he drafted the resolution as the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday approached last month because the families of those killed deserved accountability.
“Those of us in the US on both sides of the aisle feel America is part of the Good Friday agreement so we feel vested in its success,” he said. “It is again being threatened on issues surrounding Brexit and the protocol. It was the UK that brokered the language [on] Brexit so they, in a sense, are trying to orphan their own child as this progresses.”
Keating has secured support from senior Democrats, including Congressman Richard Neal, who chairs the ways and means committee and has threatened to veto any trade deal with Britain if the Good Friday agreement is undermined. He also won the backing of influential Republicans such as Elise Stefanik, who chairs the Republican Conference on Capitol Hill.
Resolution 888 calls “upon British authorities to charge individuals who committed unjustifiable crimes on Bloody Sunday [and] opposes any attempt by the British government to implement amnesty or statute of limitation laws that would end or inhibit investigations and prosecutions of crimes committed during the Troubles, including on Bloody Sunday”.
Keating’s motion was triggered by an approach from an Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH) division in Pennsylvania. It has asked members to lobby members of Congress on the issue, and helped deliver 34 co-sponsors of the resolution within two weeks. Daniel J O’Connell, AOH president, said he was “floored” by the cross-party support for the resolution.
Keating said: “I do think that Simon Coveney, the minister for foreign affairs, has been trying to find areas of agreement and we are hoping that Britain’s foreign secretary, Liz Truss, would be able to perhaps put new eyes on it. We’ve [tried] to demonstrate in a bipartisan sense in the US that we want to see success here as well.”
Brandon Lewis made not a dent in Congressional support for the Irish government lines on Northern Ireland. It seems the AoH has even more influence than he does. Did he even make the case privately for the British position on any of these contentious issues, or even debate them? If he didn’t, what was the point of sending him? If I’m being unfair, I’d like to know why
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London