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Biden in Northern Ireland: ‘Landmark Moment Reduced to No More than a Photo-Op by Downing Street’

The limited nature of the US President’s Northern Ireland visit stands in stark contrast to the scenes on the other side of the border, writes Emma DeSouza

US President Joe Biden takes a selfie with guests after speaking at Ulster University in Belfast in April 2023. Photo: Zuma Press/Alamy

Biden in Northern IrelandLandmark Moment Reduced to No More than a Photo-Op by Downing Street

The limited nature of the US President’s Northern Ireland visit stands in stark contrast to the scenes on the other side of the border, writes Emma DeSouza

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It was a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it visit. A single, deliberative speech from President Joe Biden that reiterated US support for the peace process, yet one which is likely to be overshadowed by the conflicting timeline delineating his brief 15-hour stint in Northern Ireland when contrasted with his packed three-day tour of the Republic of Ireland.

Given the fragile state of Northern Ireland’s peace process, the optics of this disparity will linger in the collective consciousness longer than the content of any speech. This landmark moment for Northern Ireland was seemingly reduced to no more than a photo-op by Downing Street, as internal British politics once again conflicted with Northern Ireland’s peace process. 

All five Northern Ireland party leaders were present at Biden’s speech at the Ulster University in Belfast, as was the Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris. However, noticeably absent was Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who was in Northern Ireland for a matter of hours to greet the visiting President before returning to Britain.

One would be forgiven for asking who dropped the ball. It is widely considered that the White House wanted a longer, more engaged, Northern Ireland visit – while the UK Government wanted the trip extended beyond Northern Ireland. In the end, neither side got what they wanted. It was a diplomatic failure that has a ripple effect. Sunak skipped Biden’s speech in Belfast, while Biden will not be attending the King Charles’ coronation in May, opting to send the First Lady instead. 

The intentionality of Biden’s speech, and that of US Special Envoy to Northern Ireland, Joe Kennedy III, served as a pointed reminder that this visit was not about the UK, but rather the deep commitment of the US Government to the people in Northern Ireland.

“We believe in Northern Ireland, we believe in you, we believe in your future,” remarked Kennedy. 

Former President Bill Clinton set a high bar for presidential visits when he became the first sitting president to touch down in Northern Ireland in 1995. The pursuit of peace in the North served as a persistent theme threaded throughout Clinton’s presidency, continuing into that of George W. Bush, during which efforts to disband paramilitary forces were redoubled. Following the election of Barack Obama in 2009, the desegregation of Northern Ireland’s education system became a strong focus.

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With the exception of George H. W. Bush and Donald Trump, each American head of state to take office since 1961 has made a determined effort to engage on key issues affecting Northern Ireland and, to the current President’s credit, Biden arrived with his own key message: economic prosperity.

He said that “peace and economic opportunities go together” adding that “the next 25 years should be about economic development, and the US can help Northern Ireland achieve that”. The President dangled a $6 billion investment in Northern Ireland by stating that the US stands ready to triple its $2 billion investment. This level of investment to a small, contested region of fewer than two million people is quite remarkable. 

Throughout his speech, Biden’s comments were careful calibrated. Those hoping for forceful language to urge the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) back into power-sharing will be sorely disappointed.

Northern Ireland’s Stormont institutions have been down for more than a year after the DUP collapsed power-sharing in protest over the Northern Ireland Protocol. The absence of local decision-making and governance is having an increasingly negative impact on public services.

The President approached this political stalemate with kid gloves, saying “as a friend, I hope it’s not too presumptuous for me to say that I believe democratic institutions established through the Good Friday Agreement remain critical for the future of Northern Ireland. It’s a decision for you to make, not for me to make. But it seems to me they’re related”.

While Biden’s was as diplomatic an approach as they come, in using a softer touch, both the President’s speech and visit were in no danger of being eclipsed by reactionary unionist outrage. Nonetheless, in the run-up to Biden’s remarks, former DUP Leader Arlene Foster had pre-emptively attempted to poison the well by purporting that the President “hates the UK”, while a banner reading “Go Home Provo Joe” was erected in a loyalist area near Newry.

Tensions are high in Northern Ireland and many within unionism and loyalism – having tethered their mast to the DUP’s aimless anti-Protocol agenda – are in defence mode. 

Since taking office, Biden has been consistent in his unwavering support for the Good Friday Agreement, reiterating in his Belfast speech that Northern Ireland’s peace process “unites” democrats and republicans. While this allegiance has made him a critical friend to the UK, it brings with it an inherent tension which may serve as an undercurrent in what could be perceived as a cold, or at least tepid, welcome from the UK Government.

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A similar uninterest is reflected across the UK media, with the vast majority of British newspapers carrying a story on the King’s coronation rather than the presidential visit if ever Northern Ireland needed reminded of how insignificant and unimportant it is to mainland Britain. By contrast, the front pages of every mainstream newspaper in Ireland carried the President’s visit as their top story.

As the media agenda in Ireland quickly moves on to cover Biden’s tour de force across the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland continues to languish in political drift. This visit should have been seized upon as a significant opportunity to both showcase Northern Ireland 25 years on from the Good Friday Agreement and to hold serious discussions regarding the restoration of political stability. 

The limited and exclusive nature of Biden’s Northern Ireland visit stands in stark contrast to the scenes already emerging on the other side of the border, with the President doing walkabouts through communities, and greeting patrons at a local pub.

How fitting it could have been for the US President to have had a walkabout in an area such as East Belfast – once a unionist heartland and now home to an Irish language school, East Belfast GAA, and not one, but two local breweries. It stands as a prime example of the transformation which – while incomplete – has been occurring across communities in Northern Ireland for the past two decades.

As the DUP Leader Jeffrey Donaldson said, this presidential visit “doesn’t change the political dynamic in Northern Ireland” – because it wasn’t allowed to. 

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