US President Joe Biden has called for political compromise in Northern Ireland during a brief visit to promote the benefits of enduring peace and investment in the region.
Biden spent just over half a day in Northern Ireland, where he met British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, before travelling south to the Irish Republic for two and a half days of speeches and meetings with officials and distant relatives.
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“It took long, hard years of work to get to this place,” Biden said in a speech at the new Ulster University campus in Belfast on Wednesday, remarking how the city had been transformed since he first travelled there as a young senator.
“Today’s Belfast is the beating heart of Northern Ireland and is poised to drive unprecedented economic opportunity,” he said. “There are scores of major American corporations wanting to come here, wanting to invest.”
Biden said power sharing remained critical to the future of Northern Ireland and an effective devolved government would “draw even greater opportunity in this region”.
“I hope the assembly and the executive will soon be restored. That’s a judgement for you to make, not me, but I hope it happens,” he told an audience that included the leaders of Northern Ireland’s five main political parties, 25 years on from a peace agreement brokered by the US government.
That deal, called the Good Friday Agreement, ended 30 years of sectarian conflict and instituted shared governance between the overwhelmingly Protestant unionists, who want Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom, and the overwhelmingly Catholic nationalists, or republicans, who want it to become part of the Republic of Ireland.
The US president visited at a time when power sharing has broken down and left Northern Ireland without its own government.
Biden said on Tuesday that the priority for his trip was “to keep the peace” in Northern Ireland. He credited people who were willing to “risk boldly for the future” for reaching the agreement, reminding the audience that “peace was not inevitable.”
But senior figures in the pro-UK Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which is under pressure to resume local power sharing, were strikingly undiplomatic about the US president.
Sammy Wilson, a DUP member of the UK Parliament in Westminster, branded Biden “anti-British”, accusing the second Catholic US president of having “made his antipathy towards Protestants in particular very well-known”.
Another DUP lawmaker, Nigel Dodds, suggested any mediation efforts would prove futile.
“Pressure from an American administration which is so transparently pro-nationalist constitutes no pressure on us at all,” he told the Daily Telegraph newspaper.
Neil Given, a civil servant who lives in Belfast, welcomed Biden’s visit but said his “expectations are not great” that it would unblock the political deadlock.
“We have prevaricated for well over a year now, and ever since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, there have been numerous stoppages of the institutions of Stormont,” he said.
“Whether or not Mr. Biden’s visit can in 24, 48 hours pull people together and perhaps get a message we really do need to get back to government, I don’t know, but hopefully, he can do that,” Given said. “I know there is no more powerful person certainly to be over that can give out that message.”
Devolved government in Belfast is a key plank of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, but it collapsed 14 months ago over the DUP’s opposition to post-Brexit trade arrangements in Northern Ireland.
Despite the UK and the European Union agreeing to overhaul them this year, the party is yet to back the new trading terms and allow the restoration of Belfast’s Stormont legislature.
Nonetheless, Biden’s visit marked the “tremendous progress” made since the peace agreement was signed, the White House said.
Biden’s defenders noted that his delegation includes Joe Kennedy III, a scion of the Irish-American Kennedy clan, who was appointed special envoy for economic affairs in Northern Ireland. He will remain in Belfast for several days.
“I think the track record of the president shows that he’s not anti-British,” Amanda Sloat, National Security Council senior director for Europe, told reporters on Wednesday.
“The president has been very actively engaged throughout his career, dating back to when he was a senator, in the peace process in Northern Ireland,” she said.
Fewer than 24 hours after arriving in Northern Ireland, Biden was heading on to Ireland, which he says is “part of my soul”. He plans to pay visits to the hometowns of his 19th-century ancestors.