Politics resumed on Capitol Hill this week after the midterm elections.
The big change is that from January the House of Representatives will be controlled by the Republican Party for the first time in four years – with potentially significant implications not only for the domestic agenda of US president Joe Biden, but also his foreign policy.
Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney was in Washington this week for talks to politicians and officials in the Biden administration. Sinn Féin representatives were also in town. The Irish, and many other governments, are trying to work out what the transition will mean.
For the Irish Government the priority has been the Belfast Agreement and the implications for it arising from any British initiative to unilaterally change the Northern Ireland protocol agreed following Brexit.
Ireland has had strong support on Capitol Hill over recent years at the highest levels. And the free trade agreement which many champions of Brexit wanted provided leverage.
Richard Neal, a strong supporter of Ireland, held the post of chairman of the very powerful Ways and Means Committee in the House of Representatives through which any trade agreement between the US and the UK would have to pass. Neal argued that preserving peace and stability on the island of Ireland was essential and unwinding the protocol could affect the post-Brexit deal reached between London and Brussels.
The speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi was blunt in her position. She said she had told the then UK prime minister Boris Johnson and other senior politicians in Westminster that “if the United Kingdom chooses to undermine the Good Friday [Belfast Agreement] accords, the Congress cannot and will not support a bilateral free trade agreement with the United Kingdom”.
On foot of lobbying from the Ancient Order of Hibernians, House members also criticised British government plans for dealing with legacy issues from the Troubles in Northern Ireland, including ending prosecutions and inquiries.
However, Pelsoi will soon be stepping down from the leadership of the Democratic Party. A Republican will chair the House Ways and Means Committee from January.
The British also have been lobbying strongly in Washington. Apart from diplomats at the large British embassy, there have been regular political visits. Former UK minister Conor Burns was on Capitol Hill on several occasions on behalf of Boris Johnson’s Government.
Given the statements of the leading Democrats, it seemed always more likely that the British side needed to win support among Republicans. Former Republican president Donald Trump was, after all, a big fan of Brexit.
What Irish, and presumably British, politicians and diplomats have been trying to figure out is whether the attitude towards Northern Ireland issues would change if Republicans were in charge.
However, in the House of Representatives, Republicans do not speak with a unanimous voice on foreign affairs as well as other matters.
The biggest foreign policy question is not Ireland, but Ukraine. The US has provided up to $18 billion, according to some estimates, in military and other support for Ukraine. Some Republicans want to halt this completely, others say the country should not provide a blank cheque while yet more want the status quo to continue.
But Northern Ireland is one of the very few areas of bipartisan agreement on Capitol Hill. The Belfast Agreement is viewed as a success story for American policy nurtured under several presidencies, Democratic and Republican.
Last month Republican congressman Mike Kelly told The Irish Times that opposition to the British legacy proposals would continue if his party won the election. “While there may be a changing of the guards in the US Congress come November, our united opposition to the legacy legislation will remain solid among my colleagues on both sides of the aisle,” he said.
On his one-day visit to Washington this week Coveney met about 11 members of Congress. He said four or five of these were Republicans. At that time Republicans were on the verge of securing the majority. He said afterwards: “If there is to be a Republican majority in Congress, we are likely to see consistency in approach in relation to Northern Ireland and the peace process and the encouragement to resolve the outstanding protocol issues through dialogue and negotiations.”
Coveney told an audience in Washington the new UK Government had signalled it wanted a negotiated solution over the protocol. He was optimistic that with compromise on all sides an agreement could be reached by Christmas.
If all goes well there may be less need for the intense lobbying battles on Capitol Hill over Northern Ireland issues.
The Irish side seems confident in any event that there will be no change to US policy towards Northern Ireland over the next two years.