White House Eyes Possible Threat to Good Friday Agreement


The British government’s effort to salvage its contentious policy of deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda is drawing attention from the White House, which wants to make sure any revamped legislation does not undermine the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland, according to two Biden administration officials.

“Definitely all keeping an eye on Northern Ireland,” said a senior official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

That a British immigration policy involving one-way flights to an East African country would have implications for Northern Ireland is one of the strange, second-order effects of Britain’s membership in the European Convention on Human Rights, an international accord it helped draft after World War II.

And the fact that it would catch the eye of Washington speaks to the sensitivity of Northern Ireland in the trans-Atlantic relationship. President Biden, a proud Irish American, has shown a keen interest in the Good Friday Agreement, which was brokered under another Democratic president, Bill Clinton, and ended decades of sectarian strife.

Britain’s Supreme Court ruled earlier this month that the Conservative government’s flagship immigration policy — which involves sending asylum seekers to Rwanda to have their asylum claims processed, and to live there if their claims are granted — violated international and domestic human rights laws.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak vowed to proceed with the plan anyway by enacting emergency legislation that would get around the legal challenges, including those posed by the European Human Rights Convention.

Some on the right wing of his party — most prominently Suella Braverman, who until recently served as home secretary — have argued that Britain should simply withdraw from the convention. Mr. Sunak dismissed Ms. Braverman in a cabinet shake-up last week, replacing her with a more moderate figure, James Cleverly.

White House officials took note that just after his appointment, Mr. Cleverly said he did not believe Britain would need to withdraw from the convention. Such a move, legal experts said, would pose a direct threat to the Good Friday Agreement, since the treaty incorporates the convention into Northern Irish law.

Still, even the government’s promise of new legislation could weaken the Good Friday accord, according to these experts. The scope of Mr. Sunak’s legislation is not yet clear. But one option is for the government to seek to block the authority of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, which enforces the convention, preventing it from ruling on the legality of Britain’s asylum policy.

“In my view, this would be a breach of the convention,” said Catherine Barnard, a professor and expert in international law at Cambridge University, though she added that “clearly, a deliberate breach is not as serious as withdrawing from the convention altogether.”

Britain is seeking to renegotiate its treaty with Rwanda to include a binding commitment that it will not expel migrants sent there by Britain — one of the court’s major concerns. But it remains unclear whether the new law would survive further legal challenges or the House of Lords, the unelected upper chamber of Parliament, which has the right to review the legislation and could block it.

Mr. Sunak is under intense pressure to stanch the flow of asylum seekers who make perilous crossings of the English Channel in small boats. It is one of five goals he set for his government and a resonant issue with many in England’s north and Midlands who voted for the Conservative Party in 2019.

The question threatens to split the party between hard-liners like Ms. Braverman and more moderate figures, who warn that repudiating the convention would tarnish Britain’s international reputation. The accord, which came into force in 1953, is between members of the Council of Europe, a human rights organization that is separate from the European Union, which Britain left in 2020.

The Irish government, which is a party to the Good Friday Agreement, has lobbied American officials about the risks of Britain leaving the convention. British diplomats said they were aware of the American concerns, though they said the Biden administration had not raised the issue since the court ruling on Rwanda.

Indeed, they said, the Americans have expressed curiosity about the Rwanda policy, for which there is no equivalent in the United States. Like Mr. Sunak, Mr. Biden is struggling with illegal immigration on the eve of an election year.

Tensions over the Good Friday Agreement, also known as the Belfast Agreement, have been an undercurrent in the trans-Atlantic relationship since Mr. Biden became president. Earlier this year, he pressed Mr. Sunak to settle a standoff with the European Union over post-Brexit trade arrangements for Northern Ireland. In February, Mr. Sunak did so, signing the Windsor Framework with Brussels.

By all accounts, relations have since been on an upswing. Mr. Biden and Mr. Sunak are closely aligned in their support of Israel in its war against Hamas and of Ukraine in its war against Russia, though British officials are alarmed by signs of wavering support for Ukraine in Congress.

The White House sent Vice President Kamala Harris to an artificial intelligence summit convened by Mr. Sunak earlier this month. Some observers sniped that Ms. Harris upstaged Mr. Sunak by introducing an executive order on A.I. safety signed by Mr. Biden that same week. But British officials said the order added to the gravity of the meeting.

In a statement, the State Department said it would not comment on a hypothetical scenario of Britain leaving the convention. But it added, “Our priority remains protecting the gains of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, and preserving peace, stability and prosperity for the people of Northern Ireland.”

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