Belfast, Northern Ireland
When President Joe Biden spoke here on Wednesday to mark a quarter of a century of the Good Friday Agreement, it was not from the Northern Ireland Assembly building, which is currently on hold due to the Brexit trade dispute, but from a new university campus in the city centre.
The choice of location for Biden’s only public event in Belfast was symbolic. While decades of violence between Nationalists and Unionists have largely been left in a different era, peace is fragile and politics broken, making Biden’s speech to students not only about the region’s future but its bloody past.
“The idea of building a glass building here when I was here in 1991 was extremely unlikely,” Biden said, opening his speech by recalling the era of violence before the agreement, known as The Troubles, when car bombings and murders became part of the everyday. life in Belfast.
“Where barbed wire once cut the city, today we find a cathedral of science built of glass to let light shine in and out. It just has a strong impact,” he said. “And for those who have returned to see this, you know that this is an incredible testament to the strength and possibilities of the world.”
He called the 1998 agreement, heavily brokered by the United States, a rare glimpse of bipartisanship in Washington.
“Defending the world, preserving the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement is a priority for both Democrats and Republicans in the United States,” he said. “And that’s unusual today. Because we were very divided at our parties. This is what unites Washington. It unites America.”
Flying out of Washington on Tuesday, Biden spoke about the purpose of his brief 15-hour visit to the US. Northern Ireland straight: ensuring that the US-brokered agreement remains in place.
“Keep calm, that’s the main thing,” he said before boarding Air Force One. “Cross your fingers.”
Biden’s outspoken look was a reflection of tensions that persist 25 years after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. The agreement called for a power-sharing government between those who wanted to remain part of the United Kingdom and those who favored a united Ireland.
Although Biden was invited to speak from Stormont, the majestic parliament building overlooking Belfast, he declined the offer as the power-sharing mechanism sank into dysfunction. Since its formation, the regional government has been sporadic and out of action for over a year as the main union party resists new Brexit-related trade rules.
Both Biden and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak once hoped that these differences could be resolved in time for Biden’s visit this week. But they didn’t, leaving one of the main goals of the Good Friday Agreement unfulfilled just as the agreement is being celebrated.
Biden aides overcame the frustration by scheduling him to speak at Ulster University Belfast’s new campus, which has cost millions of pounds to build and can house thousands of students, most of whom were born after the Good Friday Agreement was signed.
For them, the violence from The Troubles isn’t even a distant memory, as they weren’t there to experience it. Instead, economic opportunities come first, especially as the UK’s exit from the European Union complicates trade relations in the region.
Biden focused partly on the economy in his speech and appointed a special envoy to Northern Ireland, former US Rep. Joe Kennedy III, to focus mainly on attracting foreign investment to the territories. Under the new UK-EU deal, Northern Ireland will essentially remain part of the EU common market, potentially making it more attractive for business.
“Peace and economic opportunity go hand in hand,” Biden said in his speech, predicting that a host of US companies are ready to invest in Northern Ireland.
Before the speech, Biden had brief conversations over coffee. with Sunak, but will not participate in any major public events with him while he is here. Biden will also not attend the coronation of King Charles III in London next month, prompting some to comment on the generally negative attitude towards the United Kingdom (the White House denies this and points out that no president has ever attended the coronation of a British monarch).
Biden is also expected to meet separately on Wednesday with the leaders of the five parties that make up Northern Ireland’s government, during which he is likely to stress the importance of renewing the deal as part of the legacy of the Good Friday Agreement.
“I’m going to listen,” Biden said when asked about his message to leaders.
However, it remains to be seen how successful he will be, and some loyalists are quietly wondering just how even-handed the proud Irish-American president can be when it comes to matters relating to his beloved ancestral homeland.
They include former leader of the Democratic Unionist Party Arlene Foster, who previously served as First Minister of Northern Ireland. She previously told local radio that Biden “hates the United Kingdom,” a charge that was later denied by senior US officials.
“I think the president’s track record shows that he is not anti-British,” said Amanda Sloat, senior director for Europe at the National Security Council. “The president has been very active throughout his career, from his time as a senator, to the peace process in Northern Ireland.”
Biden’s speech is the only public event on his schedule in Belfast ahead of his departure for Dublin in the Republic of Ireland on Wednesday afternoon. The second leg of his trip – with stops in two hometowns and a visit to Nok Temple – promises to be more personal and less political than his brief stop in Belfast.
That will start later Wednesday when Biden travels to County Louth in search of his family’s roots. In the region along the border with Northern Ireland, Biden’s great-great-grandfather Owen Finnegan was born in 1818.
During a tour of Carlingford Castle, Biden will be able to look out from its tower at Newry in the north, from where Owen Finnegan set off on his 1849 journey to the US aboard a ship called the Marchioness of Bute.
This story and title have been updated with additional details.