Amid heated Brexit negotiations in the United Kingdom’s Parliament, Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., took a six-day trip to London, Belfast and Dublin last week.
Murphy’s visit came in the lead up to the U.K.’s initial deadline to leave the European Union — a decision that British voters made in a June 2016 referendum. During his visit, he met with various British and Irish politicians and voiced his views that a “hard” Brexit that removes Britain from most European economic and political systems could endanger the “special relationship” between the U.S. and the U.K. Murphy, who serves on the Senate’s foreign relations committee, also stressed the importance of respecting the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that defined the relationship between the U.K., Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
“It is amazing as someone looking into the process from the outside that it’s taken so long for everyone to grapple with this inherent contradiction in Brexit,” Murphy said in a TV interview March 22. “You cannot fully leave the European Union and protect the peace process in Northern Ireland at the same time.”
Murphy arrived in London on March 19, where he met with members of Parliament, including David Lidington, who serves as the deputy for Prime Minister Theresa May. After a talk at the London School of Economics on the dangers of Brexit, he traveled to Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland. In Belfast, Murphy met with members of all five of the country’s political parties. On the last leg of his journey, he met with Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade Simon Coveney in Dublin.
During his visit, Murphy — who is of Irish and Polish descent — described himself and many of his fellow members of Congress as “deeply invested” in the Brexit negotiations, especially when it comes to Northern Ireland.
The issue at stake, known as the “Irish backstop,” has further complicated the already convoluted Brexit talks. There is currently an open border between majority-Protestant Northern Ireland and the mostly Catholic Republic of Ireland, which became independent from Britain in 1922. Tens of thousands of citizens from both countries commute across the border every day to visit family and to go to work or school. As a result, many Irish who live on both sides vehemently oppose closing the border.
Many U.K. citizens, however, voted to leave the European Union in order to stem the tide of immigration into the country. Leaving the border between the Republic of Ireland — which is still a member of the European Union — and Northern Ireland untouched would leave an open route from the rest of the European Union to Great Britain.
According to the 2013 American Community Survey by the U.S. Census Bureau, 33 million Americans report having Irish ancestry, compared to a population of just 6.7 million on the island of Ireland itself.
The Irish-American community has long enjoyed an outsize influence on national politics. Five of the last six presidents — all except President Donald Trump — report having Irish ancestry, as well as the past two vice presidents.
On the day Murphy landed, Donald Trump Jr. published an op-ed in The Telegraph, a British newspaper, denouncing May and declaring that “democracy in the U.K. is all but dead.”
Murphy repeatedly slammed the president’s rhetoric with regard to Brexit during his visit, and called Trump Jr.’s op-ed “troubling” in a CNN interview in London. He also warned that there is broad consensus in Congress that the United States should prioritize a trade deal with the European Union over a trade deal with the United Kingdom in the case of a “hard” Brexit.
Connecticut ranks among with states with the highest proportion of Irish-Americans. More than 16 percent of state residents report Irish ancestry.
Nathalie Bussemaker | firstname.lastname@example.org