US President Joe Biden stepped into the politically charged environment of Northern Ireland on Wednesday (12) with a short visit aimed at highlighting the advantages of sustained peace and investment. However, he has already come under intense criticism from pro-UK hardliners.
After receiving a late-night welcome in harsh weather conditions from Rishi Sunak, Biden arrived in the British-administered region, which is currently grappling with political and sectarian turmoil, even 25 years after a peace deal brokered by the United States.
The US president, who has Irish ancestry, had a scheduled meeting with Sunak and planned to greet the leaders of Northern Ireland’s warring political factions before giving a speech at a newly established Ulster University campus in central Belfast.
Before boarding Air Force One, Biden expressed that his top priority was “to maintain peace” in Northern Ireland and help resolve its political stalemate.
Senior figures within the pro-UK Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which is under pressure to resume local power-sharing, have been strikingly undiplomatic about the president.
Sammy Wilson, a DUP member of the UK parliament in Westminster, labelled Biden “anti-British” and accused the second Catholic president of the United States of America of having made his hostility towards Protestants quite apparent.
According to the Daily Telegraph newspaper, another lawmaker from the DUP, Nigel Dodds, has dismissed any potential mediation efforts. Dodds stated “Pressure from an American administration which is so transparently pro-nationalist constitutes no pressure on us at all”.
The devolved government in Belfast, a crucial aspect of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, has been non-functional for the past 14 months due to the DUP’s strong opposition to the post-Brexit trade arrangements in Northern Ireland.
Although the UK and EU agreed to revamp these arrangements earlier this year, the DUP has yet to support the new trading conditions and facilitate the reinstatement of the Stormont legislature in Belfast.
Nonetheless, the White House has stated that Biden’s visit will recognise the “tremendous progress” achieved since the accords brought an end to most of the violent conflict between pro-Irish and pro-British militants in April 1998.
Joe Kennedy III, a member of the Irish-American Kennedy family and Biden’s new special envoy for economic affairs in Northern Ireland, is part of Biden’s delegation.
National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby, speaking to reporters on Air Force One, stated that their objective is to see the national assembly at Stormont reinstated. He also emphasised the importance of improving trade and economic policies that benefit all communities, including the US.
Biden is set to visit the Republic of Ireland less than 24 hours after arriving in Northern Ireland. Biden considers the Republic of Ireland to be “part of his soul” and will visit the ancestral hometowns of his 19th-century forefathers.
Northern Irish unionists have criticised Biden for spending most of his four-day trip in his ancestral homeland. The region remains a concern for sectarian violence, with Britain’s MI5 security agency raising the terrorism threat level ahead of the president’s visit.
On Monday (10), hard-line nationalists engaged in an illegal march in Londonderry, also known as Derry, where masked youths threw petrol bombs at police vehicles.
Police in Northern Ireland also announced on Tuesday that four suspected pipe bombs were discovered in the Creggan area of the city. The devices were found in the same location where clothes worn by participants in Monday’s unnotified Easter parade were burned under the cover of umbrellas, officers said.
Biden’s visit to Belfast will allow him to witness first-hand the extensive redevelopment that has occurred since 1998. But despite concerns over sectarian violence and terrorism, Biden has downplayed any security concerns during his visit.
Additionally, his accommodation during the trip, a five-star hotel, only opened in 2018.
While some members of the DUP have expressed discomfort with Biden’s Irish heritage, others recognise the importance of maintaining a relationship with such an influential figure, especially in light of his appointment of an economic envoy.
(With inputs from AFP)