Behind the Scenes of My Trip to Belfast and London

Senator Chris Murphy
9 min readDec 1, 2021
Sitting down with Speaker Alex Maskey at the Northern Ireland Assembly.

The Northern Ireland Protocol, Explained

A quick primer on the state of affairs in Northern Ireland today: The era of The Troubles, the decades of violence between those in Northern Ireland who wanted independence from Britain (the nationalists) and those that wanted to remain part of Britain (the unionists) feels like both yesterday and a million years ago. The 1998 Good Friday Agreement, brokered by the United States, with then-Senator Joe Biden playing a leading role, put a formal end to the violence, and while both nationalist and unionist/loyalist paramilitary organizations continue to quietly operate in Northern Ireland, episodes of violence today are very rare.

This peace is still fragile, and the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union (the EU) threatens to compromise the détente achieved by the Good Friday Agreement. When Britain left the EU, so did Northern Ireland. But this created a basic contradiction. In general, the EU requires a so-called “hard border” between EU and non-EU countries, allowing for only a few points of crossing, monitored by police and customs agents. Drivers must declare goods they bring back and forth, there is more security, and a lot more bureaucracy. Under this rule, the EU should require a hard border between Northern Ireland, a part of the United Kingdom, and the Republic of Ireland, a part of the EU. But the Good Friday Agreement requires the opposite — the eradication of a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. Putting a hard border back up between the two would be the death of peace in Northern Ireland and crater both economies, since trade now moves freely between Northern Ireland and Ireland.

To avoid this disaster, the UK agreed instead to something called the Northern Ireland Protocol — a scheme to implement border checks on all goods that enter Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK by sea. By making sure that all goods are EU compliant before they reach Northern Ireland, the EU doesn’t worry about those products moving from Northern Ireland (not part of the EU) into Ireland (part of the EU). This workaround, though, is unacceptable to the unionists in Northern Ireland, because they see these checks performed on goods moving from Britain to Northern Ireland as a violation of their rights as British citizens. America would never put customs checks on goods moving from one state to another, they argue.

So now, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson — an ally of the unionists and an architect of Brexit — is threatening to pull out of the Protocol’s trade arrangements. This could, perhaps, set off a downward-spiraling crisis, ending with the EU putting up a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. As the sponsoring nation of the Good Friday Agreement, the United States has a moral and political obligation to make sure it stays in place, protecting peace in Northern Ireland. That’s why I went to Belfast and London — to encourage all parties to work out the Northern Ireland Protocol in a way that does not damage the Good Friday Agreement and Northern Ireland peace.

The Most Bombed Hotel in Western Europe

I had hoped that Republican Senator Pat Toomey would join me on this trip. We collaborate regularly on U.S.-Ireland diplomacy, and I was disappointed when Pat’s Thanksgiving week schedule prevented him from making it. But on the Friday before I left, I texted him to ask whether he would be willing to join me in a letter to Prime Minister Johnson, stating our position in support of preserving the Good Friday Agreement, that I could bring with me to Belfast and London. He immediately agreed and we spent the weekend working out the text of the letter. Congressional diplomacy is always more effective when it’s bipartisan, and this letter would allow me to convey a message on my trip backed up by a prominent Republican.

I landed in Belfast Sunday morning and checked into the Europa Hotel. The aide from the State Department’s Belfast office remarked as we entered, “This is the most bombed hotel in all of Western Europe.” He explained that the hotel was one of the few to remain open during The Troubles, and so it became a frequent target for unionist and nationalist terrorist bombers.

On Sunday afternoon, I hopscotched between different civil society meetings, including a coffee with a leader of the Northern Ireland police force. He explained how dangerous it would be to re-establish a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. The checkpoints at the border would become targets for violence, as they were during The Troubles. At the end of the day, I sat down for a long working dinner with Northern Ireland business leaders. They advocated for reforming the Northern Ireland Protocol without throwing it out. An end to the Good Friday Agreement would be terrible for business — sparking a trade war with Europe and risking the eruption of more violence.

On Monday, I headed to Stormont, the hulking, imposing building sitting on a bright green hill on the outskirts of Belfast that houses the Northern Ireland Assembly. I had been there two years earlier when it was empty. For three years, the nationalist and unionist parties refused to join together in a government, but in 2020 that stalemate was broken, and now the two main parties shared power. Over the course of six hours, I met with key leaders at Stormont — the First Minister, the Speaker, and the leaders of the five major political parties. In these meetings, I was joined by our able Consul General in Belfast, Paul Narain.

My most important meeting was with the unionist leaders. They worry that President Biden, an Irish Catholic, naturally leans toward the Catholic nationalists — the unionists’ political opponents. I assured them that this was not true and that Biden’s interest is the same as President Clinton’s was when he midwifed the Good Friday Agreement into existence: to be a neutral player trusted by all parties. I think it was important for them to hear this message from me as a member of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Further, I pressed them to do everything possible to avoid a return to violence. I explained how an amendment of the Protocol could be a win for unionists, allowing relatively free trade with the rest of Britain, while also giving Northern Ireland unique access to the EU market. No other part of the UK would enjoy this dual access, and the unionist parties could declare this a political and economic win. “You can define victory,” I told them. “Unionists will listen to you.”

Jeffrey Donaldson, the main unionist party leader, explained that Americans like me, who want to preserve the Good Friday Agreement, had to push the EU to compromise just as vigorously as we pushed the UK. I heard this from others in Belfast, and I admitted that my letter with Toomey likely should have been addressed to leaders in both London and Brussels. I think my admission of oversight caught Donaldson off guard (politicians don’t normally admit to mistakes), and it broke the ice in a way that helped convince him that leaders like Toomey and me were intent on being forceful but neutral.

Rising temperatures

On Monday night I took a short flight to London, and early Tuesday headed to the U.S. Embassy to do a radio interview with the BBC morning radio show that, I would learn later in the day, every single political leader listens to in the morning. On the show, I explained that both Democrats and Republicans in Congress care deeply about keeping the peace in Northern Ireland, and how much this mattered to me personally as an Irish-American Senator. I explained how the dispute between the EU and Britain over the Protocol was causing “temperatures to rise in Congress.”

And perhaps most importantly, I stated that it would be very difficult to get support for a new Free Trade Agreement between the U.S. and Britain as long as the fate of the Good Friday Agreement hung in the balance. This was a tough line, but one that I knew would get London’s attention. As I figured out later in the day, almost everyone I met with during the day had listened to the interview, an example of how effective the use of the press can be in diplomacy.

At the Embassy, we lamented that America has no Ambassador to Britain, Ireland or the European Union due to the historically unprecedented blockade of diplomatic nominees by Ted Cruz and Senate Republicans. In acknowledgment of the blockade, Biden dispatched one of the nation’s most senior diplomats, Phil Reeker, to London this summer to serve as the temporary, acting Ambassador. But even Phil conceded that the lack of a confirmed Ambassador sent a terrible signal to Britain, Ireland and the EU that the U.S. isn’t serious about these relationships. Of course, that is Cruz’s purpose — he wants to kneecap American diplomacy in order to hurt Biden politically. It’s unconscionable.

I needed to get back to Connecticut for the Thanksgiving holiday, so I was only able to schedule three meetings on Tuesday morning. The British were eager to meet with me, so David Frost, the Minister overseeing Brexit, Brandon Lewis, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and John Bew, Johnson’s primary foreign policy advisor, agreed to meet me together. I reiterated my message on the trade agreement and explained how damaging it would be for the UK and the EU to be in conflict at a time when European solidarity is so important in the face of external security threats.

I also met with the new Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, and Johnson’s National Security Advisor, Stephen Lovegrove. I knew that President Biden’s National Security Advisor, my good friend Jake Sullivan, was due to speak with Lovegrove and Frost later in the day, to send a similarly strong message on the need to resolve the Protocol dispute. I kept in close touch with Sullivan’s team to make sure my message was coordinated with theirs. On overseas trips, I never hold myself out as a representative of the Administration — I am representing my own views, and sometimes the views of Congress. But there is no downside to coordination of messages when possible, and here it was both possible and impactful.

Finally, in all these meetings in London, I raised another very sensitive subject, about which I can say little in this account. In an Iranian jail today sits a man named Morad Tahbaz, a dual British and American citizen whose family lives in Connecticut. Tahbaz, a naturalist studying Iranian ecology, was detained nearly four years ago under invented, ridiculous espionage charges, and since then, my Connecticut colleagues Senator Richard Blumenthal, Congressman Jim Himes and I have made it our mission to get him released. Both the U.S. and British governments have been working feverishly on Morad’s case, and in each of my engagements in London, I spent time strategizing with British leaders on how to get Morad home.

Around 1:30 pm I headed off the airport to board a flight back to the U.S., just in time to join my family for our first “regular” holiday since the pandemic began. I was on the ground in Belfast and London for just over 48 hours, but I felt when I left that I had delivered an important series of messages. Over 150 years ago, a family with the last name of Murphy set off on a perilous journey from Dublin to the east coast of America. They made the trip due to a British policy that was deliberately starving the people of the island. America was a place that could offer salvation, and it did not disappoint. I owe a debt to that family, and I pay it in part by making sure that I use a small piece of the influence I have achieved as a U.S. Senator to ensure that peace and security are sustained on the Irish island my family once called home.