12 April 2023

Among the vague platitudes, Biden’s message on the Irish border was unmistakeable


Today, Joe Biden marked the 25th anniversary of the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement, with a speech to young people and dignitaries at the new University of Ulster campus in Belfast. He became the fourth sitting president to visit Northern Ireland since 1995, which is an extraordinary statistic, and not entirely a positive one, for such a small place.

We Northern Irish are inclined to portray ourselves as a modest people, with a self-deprecating sense of humour. That perception may contain elements of truth, but only partly. The province’s troubled history has left many unenviable legacies, but one of the least appealing is the sense of self-importance and entitlement that sometimes infuses its political life.

At times, there has been almost an expectation that prime ministers and presidents should shape their schedules around Northern Ireland’s periodic crises, jetting in personally to bribe or threaten parties into restoring Stormont. The intervention of American politicians, in particular, was an Irish nationalist goal during the early stages of the ‘peace process’, aimed at ‘internationalising’ a dispute that was internal to the UK.

In contrast, when the former Ulster Unionist leader, David Trimble, was asked what his people wanted, he famously replied, ‘To be left alone’. While unionists were always more sceptical about the intentions of US presidents, they were not immune from the stardust that accompanied the likes of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

Inevitably, though, there was a greater sense of wariness about Biden’s visit. The White House’s current incumbent is outspoken about his Irish American heritage. And he’s proved particularly susceptible to spouting lines by Heaney or Yeats, telling off-colour jokes about Orangemen, and embracing other hackneyed stereotypes. 

From a political perspective, far more serious was his administration’s repeated interventions in the row between the UK and the EU over the Northern Ireland Protocol. Figures from the US government and Democratic politicians urged Britain to enforce the Irish Sea border, ignored unionist objections, and invoked the Belfast Agreement as if it were a purely nationalist document.

The DUP’s refusal to implement the Protocol, of course, is the reason that the power-sharing Executive, created by the 1998 deal, is not currently operating. Before the President’s speech, even Tony Blair warned that hectoring unionists to restore Stormont could be counter-productive. 

As if to underline this risk, in a pre-visit interview, Congressman Richard Neal told the BBC that Biden would ‘prod’ the DUP into taking up ministerial positions. This message came from a representative who delivered a eulogy at Martin McGuinness’s memorial mass, invited Gerry Adams to Barack Obama’s inauguration and defended the Sinn Fein leader when he was arrested in connection with Jean McConville’s murder. He is the epitome of the kind of IRA-friendly US politician that unionists fear influences Biden.

For these reasons, there was always the possibility of a gaffe that would make it harder to restore power-sharing, even though the President was only in Northern Ireland for a few hours. Indeed, his official schedule got off to a leisurely start, with Rishi Sunak arriving to take coffee with the ‘leader of the free world’ a little after 11am. 

As photographers took pictures of the Prime Minister and President enjoying their so-called ‘bi-latte’ at the Grand Central Hotel, Biden calmed the diplomats’ nerves, by claiming he would ‘listen’ to the leaders of the Stormont parties, rather than deliver a tough message to the DUP. 

On the streets of Belfast meanwhile, many people were irritated by the disruption to their post-Easter commute courtesy of presidential security, but others gathered to watch Biden’s heavily armoured motorcade speed between his hotel and the gleaming new university campus in North Belfast. In contrast with visits by President Clinton and President Obama, he shunned public walk-abouts, entering by the venue’s side-door to avoid photographers and protesters.

In the auditorium, the crowd was warmed up by Joe Kennedy III, the latest iteration of Irish America’s most famous political family, who avoided contentious subjects, emphasising instead the aspirations of young people and the potential for US investment in Northern Ireland. 

When Biden finally arrived on stage, the many university students in attendance must have felt like they were stuck in a broken down lift with a long-retired American tourist. The President rambled vaguely about his family history, Huguenots and a connection to Nottingham, joking that one ancestor had mutinied against the English navy. The punchline was, ‘At least that was consistent’ (with Biden’s own Irish sensibilities). He urged spectators on higher floors not to jump and made a crack about the slim chances of glass buildings surviving the Troubles.

Biden’s voice became indistinct and slurred at times. He occasionally mangled names or forgot dates. But he avoided causing offence, and sometimes, through the foggy style of delivery, there loomed a distinct message, or at least some silvery platitude, albeit none that tempted his audience into applause.

The US, he claimed, is deeply invested in the success of Northern Ireland and maintaining its peace process. ‘Your history is America’s history. Your future is our future’. He even offered some blandishments about the Ulster Scots, whom many unionists regard as their forebears, noting their outsized role in founding and building the United States.

The restoration of power-sharing he described as, ‘a decision for you to make, but I hope it happens’. His message on Brexit, the Northern Ireland Protocol and the Windsor Framework was subtle, but unmistakeable. 

The Framework deal addressed the ‘complex challenges’ created by Brexit, (not, you will notice, by the Protocol). ‘Peace and economic opportunity go together’, so if the Executive is restored, he implied, ‘scores of American corporations’ are waiting to invest in Northern Ireland. The DUP must drop its stance on the Irish border, to cash in on this deluge of dollars that can be turned on in an instant. 

Having delivered this speech, the President will now travel to the Republic of Ireland, which he apparently regards as a ‘homecoming’. Today, his remarks were anodyne and largely avoided controversy, but he is on the island for four days. 

Extraordinarily, a White House official was compelled earlier to reassure reporters that Biden doesn’t ‘hate’ Britain. There will be many more opportunities for the President to make unguarded comments, and let any prejudices show, as he enjoys Dublin’s hospitality for the rest of the week.

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Owen Polley is a writer, commentator, consultant, and the co-author 'An Agenda for Northern Ireland After Brexit'.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.