Mulvaney says UK bill does not mean immediate risk of return to hard Border, writes Cormac McQuinn
The last time US President Donald Trump spoke to Mick Mulvaney about Brexit and Ireland, he asked his Irish envoy why he had not travelled here yet.
"He thought that I would have been here by now. But we talked about Covid and he understood," Mr Mulvaney said.
Actually, his first visit to Ireland as Mr Trump's envoy was rescheduled several times as pandemic controversies in Ireland scuppered two potential dates.
There was the furore over allegations of breaches of social distancing at the funeral of republican Bobby Storey and the attendance of senior Sinn Féin politicians. Mr Mulvaney said a planned visit in the days afterwards was seen as "a bad time to come".
The storm over the infamous 'Golfgate' dinner in Co Galway saw another possible visit postponed. Mr Mulvaney said he didn't want his visits to Ireland to be "related to anything controversial".
True to his word, he quickly shot down a question on allegations in the New York Times about Mr Trump's tax affairs, saying he never comments on the president's taxes.
He said it was rare his work as Northern Ireland envoy "goes all the way up to the boss" and his last conversation with Mr Trump on the issue was around six weeks ago; Brexit-supporting Mr Trump took the issue "very seriously" and "recognises the complexities" when it comes to Ireland.
Mr Mulvaney insisted he is constantly in touch with others in the administration and has had "long conversations" about the history of the Troubles with Mr Trump. "He's a fan of history. He told me more about Gerry Adams than I knew about him myself," Mr Mulvaney added.
Mr Mulvaney, Mr Trump's former White House chief of staff, is a proud Irish-American and no stranger to these shores. He said the Trump family's hotel resort in Doonbeg, Co Clare, was "the second-best golf course in Ireland after Lahinch where I'm a member".
He didn't make it to the wind-swept links on the Atlantic coast on this visit but did play a round at the "just lovely" six-hole course set up by US Ambassador Edward F Crawford at his Phoenix Park residence.
Mr Mulvaney's visit may have avoided Covid-19 controversies but it does come at a highly sensitive time in the Brexit process. Tensions between the UK and EU are high amid the impasse on talks on a trade deal and the British government's decision to push ahead with its Internal Market Bill. Brussels and Dublin believe the bill undermines the Brexit deal and protocols designed to prevent a hard border.
Mr Mulvaney met Taoiseach Micheál Martin, Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney and Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald and is to hold further meetings with politicians in the North.
Ms McDonald was asked about the row over Mr Storey's funeral delaying Mr Mulvaney's mission. She said: "I think it was the Covid situation and international travel more generally that impacted on his arrangements. I'm glad that he has got here, and I hope that his meetings are useful and that a unified message will go back from Ireland to the United States."
Separately in his meeting with Mr Mulvaney, Mr Coveney emphasised Ireland's "real concern" at the current approach of the UK government.
The US envoy met the UK's Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis on Sunday. Mr Lewis previously admitted the Internal Market Bill breaks international law, albeit arguing it did so in a limited way.
Mr Mulvaney said he was satisfied with Mr Lewis's argument the legislation was a "safety net" and would "only become relevant if there is no underlying larger EU-UK agreement". He said both sides had a "mutual interest" in securing an agreement and politicians on both sides still believed there could be a deal.
He said he understood why people were questioning the British commitment to international agreements, but didn't believe it had undermined the US administration's confidence in the UK's ability to maintain international commitments. He predicted the US would do a trade deal with the UK but the UK would seal a deal with the EU first.
Senior US Democratic Party politicians including Nancy Pelosi have warned a deal with the UK could be blocked if the Good Friday Agreement isn't protected. Mr Mulvaney said some American lawmakers would be well served to "look at it with cool heads and realise [the Internal Market Bill] is not an immediate threat to the Good Friday Agreement".
He added: "It's not an immediate threat to the reinstitution of a hard Border. Could it play a role in moving in that direction? Yes, which is why I'm here to reflect my government's commitment to the Good Friday Agreement."
He suggested an extension of the Brexit transition period beyond the end of 2020 to allow more time for trade talks would only delay an agreement: "The pressure sometimes encourages people to do the right thing."
Mr Trump faces his rival, former vice-president Joe Biden, in the first presidential election debate tonight.
Earlier this month, Fine Gael TD Joe Carey suggested the next US president be invited to Ireland for St Patrick's Day 2022 to boost tourism.
Mr Mulvaney said this was a "fabulous idea", adding: "If I'm in a position to have any sway over whatever administration is in power in 2022 I will absolutely raise that." Asked if Mr Trump would be interested in such a visit, he said: "Getting the president to come here is pushing against an open door."
President Donald Trump has denied an expose by The New York Times saying he effectively paid no income tax for most of the past two decades, but experts said the methods it was reported he employed to reduce his bill are commonly used by wealthy property developers to file zero-liability tax returns.
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