In a marked departure from his itinerary north and south of the inner-Irish demarcation, President Joe Biden will allocate a mere half-day to Belfast, Northern Ireland’s capital, before devoting two-and-a-half days to Dublin, Louth, and Mayo in the Irish Republic. The presidential sojourn in Belfast encompasses a bilateral meeting with British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and a public address to students at Ulster University, where erstwhile U.S. presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton serves as chancellor.
In contrast, the Republic of Ireland shall play host to a bevy of receptions, banquets, and a series of protocol and personal engagements with both the president and the prime minister. Additionally, the American president will pay homage to his Irish forebears by visiting their ancestral homes.
Marking a quarter-century since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, President Biden’s visit underscores the significance of the accord that saw the British and Irish governments, along with Northern Ireland’s warring factions, broker a peace deal with the aid of American diplomacy. The somber anniversary serves as a reminder of the civil conflict that had claimed over 3,000 lives in the preceding thirty years. Northern Ireland remains a fractured society, with Catholic nationalists seeking unity with the Irish south and Protestant unionists steadfastly advocating for continued association with the United Kingdom.
Belfast University, thus, served as an apt platform for President Biden’s exhortations and cautionary words. While the assembled students were treated to a message of hope, the political leaders present were on the receiving end of presidential admonitions. The American president lauded the hard-won peace in Northern Ireland, partly facilitated by American efforts, and cited former Washington special envoy George Mitchell’s observation of “seven hundred days of failures” and “one day of success” in the negotiations.
Mr. Biden underscored Northern Ireland’s economic resurgence, driven by its youth, entrepreneurs, and scientists, debunking the notion of a talent exodus due to a lack of opportunity. He pointed to the region’s GDP doubling since the Good Friday Agreement and optimistically forecasted a potential tripling in the coming years, bolstered by American investment.
Nevertheless, Biden also let his dissatisfaction with the current situation in Northern Ireland show. The region’s self-governance, home to around two million inhabitants, has been stymied by the refusal of one faction to participate in a joint executive. The unionist DUP, a predominant Protestant political force, has obstructed both government formation and parliamentary proceedings for nearly a year. The party perceives the perpetuation of EU’s internal market rules in Northern Ireland post-Brexit as a threat to its unity with Great Britain. In addition, despite denials, the unionists’ discontent stems from the fact that Catholic Sinn Fein outperformed the DUP in regional elections a year ago, thereby claiming the prime minister’s position and relegating the unionists to deputy heads of government.
British Prime Minister Sunak has endeavored to alleviate the trade barriers in Northern Ireland, which have arisen due to the continued application of single market regulations following Brexit, through a fresh accord with the EU. However, the political stalemate in Belfast remains unbroken. Even the anticipation of President Biden’s arrival failed to inspire change. Had the DUP acquiesced, the American president’s visit might have been marked by greater pomp and ceremony, including a reception by King Charles in Belfast, a presidential address to regional parliament members, and other symbolic gestures.
Instead, the American president met the leaders of the regional parties Wednesday only for a brief handshake on his way to the university, while a conversation with British Prime Minister Sunak took place in a Belfast hotel. Acknowledging the “very complicated challenges” Brexit has spawned in Northern Ireland, the American president lauded the leadership of Sunak and EU Council President Ursula von der Leyen in forging a new framework agreement that he believes will yield economic success for the region. Biden stressed the importance of functional democratic institutions for Northern Ireland’s future, explicitly expressing his hope for the reinstatement of Parliament and the government. Nevertheless, he conceded that the decision lay with the region’s party representatives.
Anticipating potential criticism for their inflexibility, unionists had preemptively dismissed any advice from the American president. Ian Paisley Jr., son of party founder Ian Paisley, said they would not heed Biden’s counsel. Arlene Foster, a former DUP leader, even accused Biden of harboring pro-Irish bias due to his ancestry and a purported disdain for the United Kingdom. In response, the president employed humor to defuse the situation, jokingly citing the former British ambassador in Washington as a source, who revealed that “Biden” is, in fact, an English name.