EU's Sefcovic briefs U.S. lawmakers on Northern Ireland's Brexit puzzle
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FILE PHOTO: European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic speaks during a press conference after a General Affairs Council with the Portuguese European Affairs Secretary, held by video conference at the EU headquarters in Brussels, Belgium February 23
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DUBLIN (Reuters) - EU Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic and Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney briefed the U.S. Congress' influential Irish-American caucus on Wednesday on Britain's unilateral change to Northern Irish Brexit arrangements.
The fate of Northern Ireland, closely watched by U.S. President Joe Biden, has been the most bitterly contested Brexit issue.
While campaigning in the presidential election last year, Biden bluntly warned Britain that it must honour Northern Ireland's 1998 peace agreement as it withdrew from the EU or there would be no separate U.S. trade deal.
London ultimately agreed a protocol which left the British-run region aligned with the EU's single market for goods when it exited the bloc's orbit. This necessitates checks on some items arriving there from elsewhere in the United Kingdom.
Britain's unilateral extension of grace periods on checks last week has led to a promise of legal action from the EU and accusations from Ireland that its neighbour is not acting like a "respectable country".
The meeting with the caucus took stock of Britain's "unilateral move on implementation of the Protocol" and discussed the "unique opportunities" Northern Ireland due to its full access to both the EU and UK markets, Coveney said in a statement.
"The EU and the US have been unwavering partners to the peace process," Coveney said. "I would like to thank the members of the Caucus for their engagement today and their continued support for the Good Friday Agreement."
The agreement largely ended three decades of violence between mostly Catholic nationalists fighting for a united Ireland and mostly Protestant unionists, or loyalists, who want Northern Ireland to stay part of the United Kingdom.
Coveney has sought the support of U.S. lawmakers throughout the Brexit process and Irish Prime Minister Micheál Martin is due to speak to President Biden next week, in lieu of the usual St Patrick's Day bilateral meeting in the White House.
The Friends of Ireland caucus, a bipartisan group on Capitol Hill that weighed into the Brexit debate on Ireland's behalf before the Northern Irish protocol was agreed in 2019, requested the briefing from both Sefcovic and Coveney, the European Commission said.
The group is chaired by Democrat Richard Neal, who is also the chairman of the powerful Congressional committee overseeing trade.
(Reporting by Padraic Halpin and Conor Humphries in Dublin and Philip Blenkinsop in Brussels; Editing by Nick Macfie and Toby Chopra)
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