Joe Biden’s visit to Northern Ireland was little more than a brief ‘add-on’ to his holiday in the Republic… so what was the point? asks JASON GROVES
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Rishi Sunak could have been forgiven a sigh of relief when Air Force One touched down in Dublin yesterday afternoon following Joe Biden’s cursory visit to Northern Ireland.
Given his proud Irish heritage and long association with the republican movement, there was never any chance that Mr Biden would be able to sweet talk the DUP into re-joining the power-sharing process it has boycotted for more than a year.
But there were real fears that the gaffe-prone US President might inadvertently upset the delicate negotiations with the DUP by antagonising them.
The trip did not get off to a good start. As he left the US, Mr Biden told reporters he was aiming to ‘keep the peace’ – comments which only served to raise the hackles of Unionists who accuse him of siding with republicans pushing for the reunification of Ireland – and the break-up of the UK.
As a senator in 1985 he opposed and watered down an extradition treaty which would have made it easier for the UK to extract suspected IRA terrorists.
BELFAST: US President Joe Biden posing with Ulster University students in the Northern Ireland capital
President Joe Bidengreets people at the Food House while on a walkabout through Dundalk, Co Louth
A decade later he invited Gerry Adams to Capitol Hill during the Sinn Fein president’s controversial tour of the United States at a time when the IRA’s murderous campaign was still under way.
His ‘Irishness’, which plays well with millions of Irish-Americans, even saw him jokingly refuse a question from the BBC in 2020 on the grounds that ‘I’m Irish’.
By the time he landed in Belfast the former DUP leader and First Minister Arlene Foster had declared: ‘He hates the United Kingdom, I don’t think there’s any doubt about that.
‘I just think the fact he’s coming here won’t put any pressure on the DUP at all, quite the reverse actually, because he’s seen by so many people as just simply pro-republican and pro-nationalist.’
Even Tony Blair, who has always gone out of his way to remain in lock step with the White House, felt the need to issue a gentle warning to Biden that it would be ‘futile’ for him to try to pressure the DUP back in to Stormont.
The hostile reaction forced the White House to take the highly unusual step of briefing reporters that the President ‘is not anti-British’. In the event, Mr Biden took a diplomatic approach, going out of his way to praise the role of Ulster-Scots pioneers in helping found the modern United States – comments which met with the approval of DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson.
Instead of lecturing the Unionists he dangled the prospect of ‘billions’ in investment in Northern Ireland if the Province got power-sharing up and running again.
But it was hard to see the point of his visit. When Mr Biden first conceived the trip last year it was seen as the chance for a ‘victory lap’ to mark the US involvement that helped get the Good Friday Agreement over the line 25 years ago.
But the continuing stalemate at Stormont saw it downgraded to a brief add-on to what one Whitehall source described as a ‘holiday’ for Mr Biden in Ireland, where he will spend the rest of the week visiting his ancestral homelands.
In the end the US President spent just 15 hours in the Province, half of it asleep.
A further clue that the visit lacked a serious policy focus was provided by the fact that Biden was accompanied by his sister Valerie and son Hunter rather than the usual phalanx of aides.
It’s the Belfast tea party: The PM holds talks over a cuppa with Joe Biden yesterday
The timing is also curious, with Mr Biden arriving a week before the main commemorations, fuelling rumours he did not want to play second fiddle to Hillary Clinton who will host a major event in Belfast next week, which will be addressed by Mr Sunak.
A meeting described by No10 as a formal bilateral between the Prime Minister and President was downgraded to a ‘coffee’ by the White House, leading it to be dubbed the ‘bi-latte’.
In fact, No10 insisted the meeting had been ‘warm’ and productive, albeit with no mention of a new trade deal.
Sir Jeffrey later declared that Mr Biden’s visit ‘doesn’t change the political dynamic in Northern Ireland’.
At least it had not made things worse.
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