LONDON — When Prime Minister Rishi Sunak held his first meeting with President Biden, in Indonesia last November, he made Mr. Biden a welcome pledge: Britain would settle a trade dispute with the European Union over Northern Ireland by April, the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.
That is the landmark peace accord that ended decades of sectarian bloodshed in the North —a prized foreign-policy legacy for Democrats and one that Mr. Biden would like to celebrate with a visit to Belfast, Dublin, and possibly London, in the spring, according to people familiar with the administration’s plans.
Now, with the anniversary less than four months away, Mr. Sunak faces a forbidding timetable to deliver on his pledge. The issues on the table remain as complex and politically fraught as they were for Mr. Sunak’s predecessors, Liz Truss and Boris Johnson, neither of whom came close to breaking the impasse.
On Tuesday, Mr. Sunak’s foreign secretary, James Cleverly, will travel to Washington, in part to brief Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken about the progress in London’s negotiations with Brussels. Those talks are expected to enter a decisive phase after a meeting on Monday between Mr. Cleverly and Maros Sefcovic, the European Commission vice president who is its chief negotiator.
Both sides agree that the atmosphere for the negotiations — the “mood music,” in their well-worn phrase — has improved markedly since Mr. Sunak took office last October. The two sides recently struck a deal on the sharing of data, one of the technical issues that affects post-Brexit trade with Northern Ireland.
But the inescapable reality is that Brexit established a trade barrier between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, leading to cumbersome delays at customs checkpoints, and other thorny issues. Chief among them is whether the European Court of Justice, which guarantees that European law is applied in all member states, should have jurisdiction over the North.
Understand the Political Situation in Britain
- A Political Test: Rishi Sunak, who took over as prime minister with the hope of restoring stability to a government in turmoil, is facing formidable political and economic challenges.
- A New Pledge: In a sweeping speech on Jan. 4, Mr. Sunak laid out a series of promises to restore the country to prosperity and well-being, challenging Britons to hold him to account.
- Worker Strikes: Crippling strikes across multiple industries have Britain’s Conservative government facing a “winter of discontent,” just as a Labour government did 44 years ago.
- Selling Austerity: With an elite pedigree and a privileged lifestyle, Mr. Sunak must now persuade ordinary Britons that they should support his government through a painful ordeal of tax increases and spending cuts.
This is viscerally opposed by hard-line Brexiteers in Mr. Sunak’s Conservative Party, who argue that it infringes on British sovereignty, and by unionists in Northern Ireland, who argue that it drives a wedge between them and the United Kingdom.
Mr. Sunak’s pledge to strike a deal by April came partly in response to pressure from Mr. Biden, who has put the Good Friday Agreement at the center of relations between the United States and Britain. American officials argue that tensions over the status of Northern Ireland could jeopardize the hard-won peace there.
For Mr. Biden, a proud Irish American who speaks often of his roots, a trip to Belfast would be a symbolic pilgrimage. It could also include stops in Dublin and London, where he would reaffirm a “special relationship” between Britain and the United States that has been strengthened by their joint military support for Ukraine.
In Belfast, Mr. Biden would likely by joined by former President Bill Clinton, who helped broker the accord in 1998; his wife, Hillary; and other Democratic figures, according to the people with knowledge of the plans, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive negotiations. While American officials say they have not made Mr. Biden’s visit contingent on a deal, he could skip London if the dispute was still simmering.
To strike an agreement, Mr. Sunak will need to make a political decision on the role of the European court. But analysts said the British government had not yet prepared the ground, either in Northern Ireland or in its own Tory party ranks, for what such a compromise would entail.
“There is a need for clear messaging from the U.K. government about the realities of post-Brexit trade,” said Katy Hayward, a professor of political sociology at Queen’s University, Belfast. “If the prime minister is unwilling to challenge the hard-liners in his own party on this subject, how can he expect Donaldson to do so in his?”
Professor Hayward was referring to Jeffrey Donaldson, the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, the North’s main pro-union party. It has refused to take part in Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government until Britain overhauls the trade rules, which are known as the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Last week, after meeting with Mr. Cleverly, Mr. Donaldson told the BBC that Britain and the European Union were not “anywhere close to a deal.” An influential member of the hard-line wing of the Conservative Party, David Jones, said Britain’s government must insist that European law no longer apply in Northern Ireland, a situation he derided as “bizarre and exceptional.”
With both camps digging in, Mr. Sunak faces a dual threat: alienating a faction of his party, and deepening the political disarray in Northern Ireland, which has been without a government since elections last May because of the Democratic Unionists’ refusal to take their seats in the legislative assembly.
The protocol is the result of a painstaking negotiation in the aftermath of the Brexit vote. It was designed to account for the hybrid status of Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom but shares an open border with neighboring Ireland, a member of the European Union. To prevent the resurrection of a hard border, which could rekindle sectarian tensions, Mr. Johnson had accepted checks on goods flowing from mainland Britain to Northern Ireland.
Unionists complain that these checks, which are intended to make sure goods meet E.U. standards, have made life hard for businesses in the North. Both sides acknowledge that there are ways to streamline the process, but Brussels is sure to reject the demands of unionists to all but abandon the protocol.
Complicating matters further is legislation introduced by Mr. Johnson that would unilaterally overturn parts of the protocol if no deal is reached. Brussels says that breaches its post-Brexit agreement with London. There have been reports, so far denied, that Mr. Sunak’s government might pause the bill.
The pressure from Washington to settle the matter adds another wrinkle to Mr. Sunak’s decision — an important one, since the United States remains Britain’s closest ally. And the visibility of the issue will only increase with the arrival in two weeks of a new American special envoy to Northern Ireland: Joe Kennedy III, a Massachusetts Democrat and scion of the Irish American political dynasty.
While Mr. Kennedy’s brief is limited to economic affairs, American officials say he will symbolize the administration’s desire to see progress there.
Mr. Sunak is not the only person to seize on the Good Friday Agreement as an action-forcing event. On Friday, the opposition Labour Party leader, Keir Starmer, urged the prime minister to conclude a deal with the European Union. He volunteered that his party would help the government get such a deal through Parliament if Mr. Sunak lost votes from hard-liners in his party.
Mr. Starmer’s offer, of course, is double-edged: Mr. Sunak would never want to rely on Labour votes to pass legislation. Throwing Labour’s support behind an agreement with Brussels also makes the opposition leader look like a statesman, while highlighting the ideological fissures in the Conservative ranks.
“The time to put Northern Ireland above a Brexit purity cult, which can never be satisfied, is now,” Mr. Starmer declared in a speech at Queen’s University. “There is a small window of opportunity before April.”