BY FRANCIS COSTELLO
Special to the BIR
Belfast – The arrival of a high-powered US congressional delegation led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Ireland North and South last month marked the most significant American official visit here in years.
That the speaker was joined by Massachusetts Congressman Richard Neal, the chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee and a man with deep roots in County Down, made it all the more important in the midst of the ongoing current uncertainties over Brexit.
Neal’s committee will oversee any future, post-Brexit, trade deal between the US and UK. Last month, ina letter to Prime Minister Theresa May, he made it clear the negative consequences of a hard border in Ireland and, likewise if there is any threat to the Good Friday Agreement caused by Brexit.
Before arriving in Ireland, Neal and Pelosi, joined by several other House colleagues both Democrat and Republican, delivered that message in person in London to the British government.
To know Richie Neal as I have since his days as a popular mayor of Springfield, Massachusetts, is to know that he doesn’t pull any punches. Mild and engaging by nature, he is also direct in his approach to issues he cares about. Jobs and educational funding for his district remain paramount. But true to his heritage as an Irish American with a proven interest in building peace for all in Northern Ireland, so is making sure the gains achieved under the Good Friday Agreement are not derailed by Brexit.
Before the Brexit vote in 2016, Neal, as co-leader of the Friends of Ireland in the US Congress, stressed that progress made in trying to promote more US investment by implementing the twelve percent corporation tax would mean little if Northern Ireland became separated from the European Union and from more meaningful cross border cooperation within the island.
Right now, Richard Neal may be one of the reasons for ensuring that dislodging the North from Europe does not happen.
As a university lecturer, he also is concerned that “the damage that would be done would not be economic alone.’’ At the heart of that concern is the need to ensure that the human rights protections under the Good Friday Agreement are also not scuttled by Brexit.
Boston software entrepreneur John Cullinane – an architect of investment projects for Northern Ireland and the border counties funded largely with US government support under the International Fund for Ireland, and an advisor to Nancy Pelosi – noted his own faith in chairman Neal “as someone knowledgeable and well versed in the history of these islands.” Cullinane also singled out Neal’s commitment “to using his important role to use his influence to help thwart the madness that would drive job creating companies away whether they be on the Island of Ireland or in Britain itself by Brexit, something that too many do not seem to understand.”
“Business likes stability,” Cullinane noted, “whether in Springfield, Mass., Belfast, or Derry. And I am hoping that Richard Neal, given his leading role in Congress, will be able to help drive this point home to the British government if they come looking for special trade deals with the US.”
Sister Lena Deevy, a founder and former head of Boston’s Irish International Immigration Centre (IIIC), said “It was a great tribute to him [Neal] that Speaker Pelosi joined him in coming to Ireland to emphasize the critical importance of protecting the Good Friday Agreement in any Brexit settlement between the UK and European Union.
“ I first met Rep. Neal when he joined me on the front lines over twenty years ago as an International Observer of the July 12th Orange March in Portadown,” she said. “He showed his concern for the besieged local Catholic population there while he was working for a peaceful settlement and reaching out to the Unionist community”
Attorney Brian O’Dwyer, always close to the scene on the ground in the North, and also among the most effective in leveraging influence on vital issues, stresses that Neal’s “stated position” on the inherent obligation of the US to protect against the undermining of the Good Friday Agreement “are not idle words” and that Neal “has made repeated visits to the border.” With Neal “now in charge” of the Ways and Means Committee, O’Dwyer emphasizes that this is where any post-Brexit proposed British trade deal with the U.S. “gets its first hearing.”
Another respected local voice has weighed in on the risks posed by Brexit. Tim Murray, chairman of the Greater Worcester Chamber of Commerce of some 2,500 members in Central Massachusetts stresses that “Many Massachusetts companies looking to expand business into the European market naturally look to the UK and Ireland.
Everything must be done to ensure that a UK exit from the EU will not put the North at a competitive disadvantage, especially as it continues to benefit from the relative peace of the last two decades thanks to the Good Friday Accords.
“Richie Neal is 100 percent right to emphasize the prospect of the reinstitution of the border crossing between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland would be a major step backwards for any Brexit deal that threatens the Good Friday Agreement that the US backed fully in the effort to achieve peace and stability.’”
The strong wind that has blown across the Atlantic to Downing Street, and also, hopefully, to enough members of the House of Commons with any sense, shows that US congressional leaders on a bi-partisan basis are intent upon protecting the economic, human rights, and political gains enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement. This means that Britain’s acceptance that it is in its own interest to honor its commitments to Ireland – all of Ireland.
Dr. Francis Costello, now based in Belfast as a consultant for US and Irish companies is author of several books on Irish history. He served in the Clinton Administration and was press secretary for Mayor Ray Flynn and chief of staff to Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy II.