Ireland ‘was considering’ playing Biden card to force EC to back down

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US President Joe Biden speaks before signing executive orders on health care, in the Oval Office – MANDEL NGAN /AFP

Ireland might have been planning to pull Joe Biden into the border row, European diplomats speculated on Saturday.

Irish officials may have threatened to use their government’s connection to the US president to force an about-turn from the European Commission.

The EU’s border threat, which Dublin was not warned about, sparked a tense call between Michael Martin, the Irish taoiseach, and Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president.

Diplomats in Brussels suggested Dublin could have “picked up the Batphone to Biden” or reminded Mrs Von der Leyen of the president’s attachment to Ireland and the peace process.

Mr Biden has Irish roots and has regularly warned the UK against erecting a hard border in Ireland.

The commission’s move was greeted with outrage in Dublin as the Irish government had previously persuaded it that no hard border on the island had to be one of the foundations of the final Brexit agreement.

In a rare moment of unity, political parties in the north and south of Ireland agreed the commission’s move would be a disaster and urged it to reverse the decision.

Arlene Foster, the first minister of Northern Ireland, described it as an “incredible act of hostility”. Colum Eastwood, the leader of the SDLP, the moderate nationalist party, said it was a “serious error of judgment”.

The commission’s miscalculation came at a time of uncertainty in the province as the operation of the sea border as part of the Northern Ireland protocol has hindered the flow of goods from Britain.

Over the past few weeks, some unionist politicians and prominent loyalists had urged Britain to invoke Article 16 to override the NI protocol, which they blamed for the interrupted trade flows.

Steve Aiken, leader of the Ulster Unionists, said the commission’s threat to invoke Article 16 “had blown out of the water” any reason why the British government should not bypass the NI protocol.

Michelle O’Neill, leader of Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland, contacted the Dublin government on Friday to raise “serious concerns” about the commission’s unilateral move, which she called “ill-judged”, adding that “calm heads need to prevail”.

Simon Coveney, the Irish foreign minister, said on Friday evening that his government was working with the commission to resolve the issue.

Mr Martin rang Mrs Von der Leyen at around 7.30pm. It is understood he told her invoking Article 16 would be a very serious mistake.

It is believed the commission accepted immediately and set about removing the contentious clause from legislation.

The view in Dublin is that commission officials acted in haste and didn’t fully understand the sensitivities of the protocol.

Catherine Hallahan prepares to hang an American flag inside her family's hairdressers in Ballina, Co Mayo to mark Mr. Biden's inauguration - Niall Carson /PA
Catherine Hallahan prepares to hang an American flag inside her family’s hairdressers in Ballina, Co Mayo to mark Mr. Biden’s inauguration – Niall Carson /PA

Moreover, they believe that had Phil Hogan still been EU trade commissioner the Article 16 would never have been on the table.

Mr Hogan was forced to resign last summer over breaches of Covid restrictions. However, there is no wider rupture between Dublin and Brussels over the vaccination programme.

One senior source said, “if all member states went it alone, then Ireland would have been at the back of the queue when it came to buying vaccines”.

As it stands, Ireland has access to 1 per cent of the commission’s portfolio of 2.3 billion vaccines, which is more than enough to inoculate the population.

One Irish government source said that even though tempers were frayed, it was important not to get into “vaccine warfare” with the UK or any other third country.



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