‘Keep the peace’: Biden begins Northern Ireland, Ireland trip

The US president will mark the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement and seek to support a post-Brexit trade deal.

President Joe Biden gestures as he boards Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base bound for Northern Ireland [Manuel Balce Ceneta/The Associated Press]

United States President Joe Biden has arrived in Northern Ireland on Tuesday, where he is set to mark the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. His trip will also include a three-day visit to the Republic of Ireland.

Speaking to reporters before boarding Air Force One, Biden said the trip would seek to assure the lasting legacy of the deal, brokered by Washington and ratified by London and Dublin.

The Good Friday Agreement, also known as the Belfast Agreement, established a fragile peace between unionist parties wanting Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom and nationalists favouring unification with the Republic of Ireland. The breakthrough largely ended three decades of violence that left more than 3,500 people dead.

Biden said his trip would also seek to support a contentious trade deal between the UK and European Union, known as the Windsor Framework, reached in the wake of Brexit.

Though the UK, and therefore Northern Ireland, have left the EU, the Republic of Ireland remains part of the European alliance. The Windsor Framework awards special status to Northern Ireland in order to keep its border open with the Republic of Ireland, thereby avoiding any historically contentious divisions.

The deal has nevertheless faced entrenched opposition from Northern Ireland’s pro-UK Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which has boycotted forming a government since May, threatening the delicate power-sharing agreement reached in the 1998 Good Friday deal.

Biden told reporters the priority of the trip was to “make sure the Irish accords and the Windsor agreement stay in place, to keep the peace”.

“That’s the main thing,” he added. “And it looks like we’re going to — keep your fingers crossed.”

Biden is set to meet with UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on the tarmac in Belfast on Tuesday.

The next day, he will give a speech at Ulster University in Belfast, “marking the tremendous progress” since the 1998 peace accords were signed, White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters.

UK media has also reported that Biden will meet with Northern Ireland’s main political parties, although the meetings do not appear on Biden’s official schedule.

US Congressman Richard Neal, a close Biden ally, told the BBC’s HARDtalk programme that there would be some “gentle nudging” and “prodding” of the DUP from the Biden administration.

Still, former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, who helped craft the 1998 peace deal, cautioned Biden on Tuesday against overly pressuring the party when in Belfast.

“If you try to pressurise them to do something they are fundamentally in disagreement with, it’s usually futile pressure, even if it comes from the US,” he told the BBC.

Meanwhile, in a sign of continued unrest in the region, masked youths on Monday pelted police vehicles with petrol bombs during an illegal nationalist march in Londonderry, also known as Derry, a city located on the border of Northern Ireland and Ireland with a long, symbolic history in regional tensions.

The Republic of Ireland sits on the southern end of the island of Ireland, comprising about 80 percent of its landmass. Northern Ireland, meanwhile, is located in the remaining northeast area of the island.

Republic of Ireland visit

On Wednesday, Biden will travel to Dublin and then head to County Louth, where the 80-year-old will reacquaint himself with his oft-cited Irish ancestry.

Ireland’s Irish Family History Centre says Biden “is among the most ‘Irish’ of all US Presidents”, noting that 10 of his 16 great-great-grandparents were from the Emerald Isle. All left for the US during the Great Famine of the mid-19th century, which killed an estimated one million people.

Biden will hold separate meetings Thursday in Dublin with Irish President Michael Higgins and Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Leo Varadkar, who last month visited Biden in the Oval Office on St Patrick’s Day. He will then address the Irish Parliament and join a dinner banquet.

The president will spend Friday, the final day of the trip, in County Mayo, exploring family genealogy and giving a speech about ties between the US and Ireland.

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters that Biden will speak in front of a 19th-century cathedral there that was built using bricks supplied by his great-great-great-grandfather, civil engineer and brickmaker Edward Blewitt.

It will be a chance to “celebrate the deep, historic ties that link our countries and people”, she said.

The visit comes before a three-day conference starting April 17 and hosted by former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as part of the 1998 peace accord commemorations.

Her husband, Bill Clinton, played a pivotal role in securing the deal as US president from 1993 to 2001.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies