I’ve just returned from a few days in Washington. Many American’s have Irish ancestry which is culturally and politically very significant. Also, the United States are co-guarantors of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement so have a formal interest in what happens there.
Last Thursday was St Patrick’s Day and I had the amazing privilege of being invited to lunch at the Capitol by Speaker Pelosi at which President Biden would speak.
In the days I was there I met with literally dozens of people from the diplomatic and political world, journalists and academics, and politicians from both parties and from congress and the administration.
It was a whirlwind of meetings but I wanted to meet as many people as possible to listen and learn and also share the policies of the Labour Party. After all, the Good Friday Agreement was negotiated by a Labour prime minister and one of our great achievements in office. A better, more peaceful and prosperous Northern Ireland is in our DNA.
I was st two events attended by the president. I saw him give a speech to a gala dinner and I have to admit that he was extremely impressive. He spoke in a conversational style about the power that migrants bring to a country and he did so by talking through examples from his own family. It was genuinely very powerful and moving.
The next day I attended the lunch as one of only 50 guests and it was a great experience. I was sat next to the congresswoman for Oakland, California, which is a place I know very well because some of my best friends emigrated there and I visit as often as I can. Congresswoman Barbara Lee was so impressive. I loved hearing about her civil rights campaigning and work in Oakland, and also had a great time telling her about our community in Hove and Portslade.
I had the chance to talk with President Biden too. We spoke about Northern Ireland, the historic relationship between our two political parties and also events in Ukraine. Two things struck me about him that I’d like to share, especially in light of how much agist comments are made about both he and Speaker Pelosi.
The first is that he’s a very easy person to be in the company of. It’s intimidating when you meet very powerful people and some people in that position play up to it. President Biden, however, smiled broadly, listened intently while never losing eye contact and had an incredibly empathetic approach to the conversation, reacting to each point I made but never cutting me off. He was a genuine pleasure to be with.
But don’t be fooled by his kind demeanour, he’s a sharp as a knife. On each issue we discussed his knowledge of people, history and context was remarkable, his analysis was crystal clear. I imagine a lot of his success is down to the number of people who underestimated his abilities, luckily I didn’t and wouldn’t recommend anyone else does either! Not only was it a real privilege to meet him but I actually enjoyed his company too.
The same is true of Speaker Pelosi. She’s a powerful personality that also radiates warmth and personality. I met her twice during the trip and both times she impressed me with her depth of knowledge about British issues and the challenges facing Northern Ireland.
Washington is a divided place just as America is right now. But one of the things that unites people is an unfailing desire for progress in Northern Ireland. Right now there is very deep concern that progress has stalled. This was expressed by everyone from the president down.
This really matters. For example, I met with House Representative Richard Neal. He’s one of the most powerful people in Washington because he’s chairman of the Ways and Means committee that scrutinises everything with a bearing on the US economy. In short, he and his committee have the power of veto over any new trade deals and that includes one with Britain. Chairman Neal is a proud Irish-American who visited Northern Ireland during the Troubles and several times since. Peace, stability and progress is important to me and he told me flatly that if the Good Friday Agreement is undermined there’s no way he could see Britain as being a trusted partner for a new trade deal.
So where are we? In the six weeks since the first minister withdrew from the Stormont executive, Boris Johnson hasn’t visited Northern Ireland once. He hasn’t held multi-party meetings in Downing Street. There’s not been a single statement to the Commons.
The Northern Ireland Protocol is a significant factor to the collapse of the executive, but after five rounds of negotiations between the UK and EU Liz Truss hasn’t made a single statement to the Commons yet different people are privately told different things.
This is domestic politics but I can tell you its being keenly noticed by our partners abroad. The notice what is happening, what is said and what goes unsaid. There is deep concern about the current impasse.
Northern Ireland needs political attention and in the complex post-Brexit world we’re now inhabiting, neglecting our obligations to the people of Northern Ireland won’t just remain a domestic UK issue, it could affect our most important global partnerships and even our ability to trade better with the world’s greatest single economy.
I was in Washington to tell our partners that Labour does take these matters seriously and stand ready to invest deeply in Northern Ireland should we take office after the next election.
Finally, I just want to say something to readers who live in Hove and Portslade. I’ve just come back from Washington where I had the privilege to meet the president and many other very senior people there. Even though I was thousands of miles away and sometimes in such exciting situations, I want you to know that I never forgot for a second that I was there because you chose me as your advocate, your voice in parliament. For me everything starts and finishes in Hove, and at times like this when I can meet amazing people like this, I do so on your behalf and always remain thankful to you for giving me this job and allowing me to do it the best I can.
I’m looking forward to reading all your comments…but be warned, any comments that make jokes about people’s age will be deleted!!! Yours, Peter
PS one evening after meetings had finished I popped out to one of my favourite places in the world, the Abraham Lincoln Memorial. I’ve only visited once before when I was 18 and since then have read many books on his life and leadership. I loved having a quiet moment there to reflect and wonder what he would make of the challenges this generation faces.