Trudeau offers Johnson help with U.K.'s post-Brexit Irish border problem

Canada has offered to help Britain untangle an ongoing dispute between it and the European Union over regulatory checks on goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain.

A former Canadian general played a key role in creating the Good Friday accord

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, left, speaks with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during arrivals for the G7 meeting at the Carbis Bay Hotel in Carbis Bay, St. Ives, Cornwall, England, Friday, June 11, 2021. (Phil Noble/AP)

Canada has offered to help Britain untangle an ongoing dispute between it and the European Union over regulatory checks on goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain.

The matter was raised Friday in a bilateral between Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

The danger that the uneasy peace along the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland could unravel has been on U.S. President Joe Biden's radar ever since the United Kingdom struck a deal to leave the European Union.

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson, his wife Carrie Johnson and U.S. President Joe Biden with first lady Jill Biden walk outside Carbis Bay Hotel, Carbis Bay, Cornwall, Britain June 10, 2021. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

London has been paying close attention to Biden's concerns in the run-up to the current G7 summit here in Cornwall, U.K. — particularly the question of how a settlement on those customs checks in Northern Ireland could affect critical trade talks between the U.K. and the U.S.

"We know how complex those border issues are as it relates to Ireland and Northern Ireland," said Canada's High Commissioner to the U.K. Ralph Goodale.

The question of what Canada might do to help was raised by Trudeau directly, he added.

A former Canadian chief of the defence staff, retired general John de Chastelain, played a key role two decades ago in successful negotiations on disarming Northern Ireland's paramilitary groups.

Canada is ready to be 'helpful': Goodale

"The Good Friday agreement is obviously important from Canada's point of view," Goodale said.

"We don't underestimate the difficulty in finding a satisfactory resolution, but we simply wanted to signal we are aware of it, and since we, at one point in time, had a role in being of assistance to find a solution, Canada is prepared to do the same again, if it would be helpful."

Still, said Goodale, it's "something that would be up to the United Kingdom to resolve."

A burning barricade set up by Loyalists on Lanark Way in West Belfast, Northern Ireland, Monday, April 19, 2021. Loyalist protests over the Brexit Northern Ireland Protocol erupted across various locations in the British province. (Peter Morrison/AP)

Johnson told Trudeau that he was confident a resolution would be found, Goodale added.

The United States was heavily involved in drawing up the Good Friday agreement, which ended over three decades of intense bloodshed in Northern Ireland.

Business and political leaders in Northern Ireland have warned since Brexit that the trade dispute is causing political instability that could spill over into violence during the so-called "marching season" next month — a time of heightened tensions between Irish loyalist and nationalist communities.

Northern Ireland was granted special status in the 2019 Brexit split between the U.K. and the EU.

Because it shares a common border with Ireland, Northern Ireland still follows EU trade rules, while England, Scotland and Wales do not.

To prevent the creation of physical border crossings between the two countries — something that would jeopardize the peace process — it was agreed that customs checks would happen on goods entering Northern Ireland from elsewhere in the U.K.

Unionists argue that a border has effectively been erected between Northern Ireland and the U.K. and that businesses are being disrupted as a result.

Negotiations to resolve the dispute have been ongoing.


Murray Brewster

Senior reporter, defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.