The most powerful man in the world will begin his most important journey since taking the job with a visit to a small island where he will find himself involved in a “sausage war”.
President Joe Biden’s trip to the G7 summit, hosted in Cornwall, will be followed by his first conference of Nato leaders in Brussels and then a summit with Vladimir Putin in Geneva.
This will be in sharp contrast to Donald Trump’s first presidential trip overseas, to Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states and Israel, which basically served as an arms-selling exercise and was also aimed at bolstering an anti-Iran alliance.
President Biden’s tour is to signal to allies and adversaries that America has returned to playing a leadership role on the international stage. However, the first issue he will have to deal with will be the effect of Brexit on the Good Friday Agreement – an agreement that was underwritten by America, bringing an end to three decades of bombings, shootings and more than 3,500 deaths.
There are now threats of a trade war between Britain and the European Union over the Northern Ireland protocol, with a ban on the export of chilled meat from the British mainland set to be the trigger. The government has declared that it is happy to unilaterally extend a “grace period” for products such as sausages.
“It is bonkers,” declared environment secretary George Eustice, that British sausages should be considered unfit for consumption in the EU. Downing Street declared that there was “no case” for depriving Northern Ireland of British sausages.
Talks between the two sides are on course for collapse, with London still considering unilateral action. David Frost, the Brexit minister, who appears to have cultivated a great deal of antipathy in the EU, has said that there has been “no breakthrough”, and the EU Commission’s vice president, Maros Sefcovic, has responded by saying that “patience [is] wearing thin” and relations with the UK are “at a crossroads”.
The impasse comes in the wake of a serious outbreak of violence in Belfast – and elsewhere in Northern Ireland – in the spring, and deep apprehension about the coming marching season, which has in the past been a setting for violent activity.
The growing crisis in Northern Ireland, say US officials, will be forcefully addressed by Mr Biden when he meets Boris Johnson for the first time on Thursday. He will point out, they say, America’s firm commitment to the NI protocol, which he sees as fundamental to maintaining peace.
Mr Biden will also ask European leaders he meets at the G7 summit to do their utmost to arrive at a solution. The British government cannot expect an easy ride from him.
Jake Sullivan, the US national security advisor, has spoken of the president’s deep concern for Northern Ireland. He told the BBC that the protocol was “critical to ensuring that the spirit, promise and future of the Good Friday Agreement is protected”.
The UK and EU need to “work out the specifics” and “find a way to proceed that works for both”, he said, adding: “But whatever way they find to proceed must at its core fundamentally protect the gains of the Good Friday Agreement and not imperil that.” That was the “message President Biden will send” at the G7 summit, Sullivan said.
Mr Biden has often proclaimed his Irish heritage, including in a video released just after he won the election. When a BBC journalist shouted, “Mr Biden, a fast phrase for the BBC?” the president replied, “The BBC?” before saying with a broad smile, “I’m Irish.”
The clip, which went viral, was regarded as an affirmation of the affection Mr Biden has for his family’s roots in County Mayo. But it was also seen as a presage of the impact the new presidency could have on Britain and Brexit.
By then there was already a growing realisation in Mr Johnson’s government that a price may have to be paid for continuously cosying up to Donald Trump, and for the lack of effort to build bridges with President Biden and his team until too late in the election campaign.
One reason Mr Johnson’s government pushed back against alignment with the EU on food regulations was apprehension that it could prove problematic for future trade deals with other countries, especially the US.
When it comes to the NI protocol, Mr Biden has repeatedly stressed the imperative of preserving the Good Friday Agreement, pointing out during his presidential election campaign that “any trade deal between the US and UK must be contingent upon respect for the agreement and preventing the hard border”.
This was hardly a new position from the Democrats. House speaker Nancy Pelosi had previously said that there was “no chance” of a trade deal getting through Congress if the Good Friday Agreement was undermined. After meeting the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, who visited Washington last year, Ms Pelosi said that Brexit must not be allowed to “imperil” peace in Northern Ireland.
In March 2019, Chris Murphy, a senator from Connecticut, warned during a visit to London of fears that a hard Brexit would inevitably “blow up” the Northern Ireland peace process. The British government was making a big mistake in listening to Trump’s call for a hard Brexit, he said, professing surprise that the UK was seemingly putting all its eggs in the Trump basket.
“The Irish American lobby, of which I am a member, is pretty powerful in the US as you know … The head of the Overseas Trade Committee, Richie [Richard] Neal, who is the most prominent member of the Irish American caucus … will be asking lots of questions, you can be sure, about the peace process before anything happens,” he said.
All this is being played out against a background of instability in unionist politics in Northern Ireland, and rising discontent within the protestant community. Arlene Foster will be replaced by Paul Givan as first minister following an internal revolt. Edwin Poots, his fellow creationist, who took over the leadership of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) from Foster, insists he will stop any permanent infrastructure being put in place for the purposes of the protocol. He also intends to start court action to try to remove the protocol.
Mr Poots’s remarks last weekend followed the return of loyalist demonstrations against the protocol after a lull in recent months. One of them was in Portadown, which used to experience regular clashes between Catholics and Protestants. Men in balaclavas turned up during the protests in the city, which was once the base of the Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF), a proscribed organisation in the UK, which carried out a string of sectarian killings in the past and has been designated a terrorist organisation by the US and the Republic of Ireland.
During a visit to Belfast last year, Mr Johnson reiterated that businesses would have unfettered access to markets in England, Scotland and Wales as they had always done. “There will be no border down the Irish Sea,” he declared. “That will happen over my dead body.” Since then, the Northern Ireland protocol has resulted in the establishing of a border down the Irish Sea.
“When your own prime minister shafts you, when he comes to this city and says there will be no border between us and Britain, and then breaks his word so easily… when your voice is being ignored, you feel abandoned,” a former combatant with the loyalist Red Hand Commando told me in Belfast two months ago during the upsurge in violence.
“The young people feel that violence has paid off for the republicans, so why shouldn’t it pay off for them? What is happening in the streets is not surprising. We have been warning this would happen – the fear is that there’s much worse in the coming months.”
Bill Clinton played a vital role along with Tony Blair in bringing the Troubles to an end with the Good Friday Agreement. President Biden is now set to try to ensure that the actions of the current British prime minister do not risk returning Northern Ireland to those dark days.