President Joe Biden smiles after stepping off Air Force One at Belfast International Airport in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Tuesday, April 11, 2023.AP
On his first presidential visit to Northern Ireland, Biden was set to deliver congratulations and encourage its leaders to work on universally beneficial trade and economic policies when he speaks at a business development event at Ulster University's new campus in Belfast.
But Biden was not expected to make any major attempt to help resolve a new political crisis that has rattled the Good Friday peace deal and put Northern Ireland's government on pause.
Instead, the Democratic president will deliver at least two messages, said White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby, who is traveling with Biden.
“Congratulations on 25 years of the Good Friday Agreement, which has brought unprecedented peace and prosperity,” Kirby said. “And that kind of goes to the second goal, which is to talk about the importance of trying to work on trade and economic policies that benefit all communities, as well as the United States.”
Biden opens his brief public schedule in Northern Ireland on Wednesday over coffee with U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. Before speaking at Ulster University, he will meet with each of the leaders of Northern Ireland's five main political parties.
Northern Ireland is without a functioning government. Stormont, the seat of its assembly, has been suspended since the Democratic Unionist Party, which formed half of a power-sharing government, walked out a year ago over a post-Brexit trade dispute.
Britain’s departure from the European Union left Northern Ireland poised uneasily between the rest of the U.K. and EU member Ireland, and put the peace agreement under increased strain.
After much wrangling, Britain and the EU struck a deal in February to address the tensions over trade, an agreement welcomed by the U.S., which had urged London and Brussels to end their post-Brexit feud. The Democratic Unionist Party, though, says the Windsor Framework doesn’t go far enough and has refused to return to government.
As he set off for Belfast, Biden on Tuesday said a priority of his trip to Northern Ireland was to “keep the peace.”
While U.K. officials hope the president's presence can help nudge the unionists back into government, Biden faces mistrust from some unionists because of his Irish American heritage. Sammy Wilson, a DUP lawmaker in the U.K. Parliament, told Talk TV that Biden “has got a record of being pro-republican, anti-unionist, anti-British.”
After the speech at Ulster University, Biden will travel to the Republic of Ireland for a three-day visit, including an address to the Dublin parliament, attendance at a gala dinner and trips to two ancestral hometowns. He will fly to County Louth, on Ireland's east coast, on Wednesday to visit a cemetery, tour a castle, walk around downtown Dundalk and attend a community gathering.
A few Belfast residents said Biden's visit was important even though it will be short.
“I think it's great that he's coming because of the anniversary of ‘the Troubles,’" Julie McNeill said Monday as she waited in the rain for a bus. She was referring to more than three decades of sectarian violence that left more than 3,600 people dead. “I think it's important that he does come.”
Still, McNeill said she was a little disappointed that the Irish American president would spend less than a day in Belfast. But she said she understood.
“I mean, the man's a busy man, and he's 80 years old. I'm sure it's hard for him,” she said.
Samuel Olufemia, who is studying for a degree in public health at Ulster University, said he was looking forward to meeting Biden on campus.
“Having him in Belfast here is a privilege,” said Olufemia, who is from Nigeria. “It's going to be an historic visit and that's one of the reasons I'm excited.”
He said he also understands that Biden is too busy to stay longer. “The president always have other things to do,” Olufemia said.
A massive security operation was in place for Biden's stay in Belfast, with a heavy police presence on blocked off streets around the president's hotel and the Ulster campus.
Last month, U.K. intelligence services raised Northern Ireland's terrorism threat level from “substantial” to “severe.” But Biden said then that not even the heightened risk of an attack would keep him from making the trip.
Biden last visited Ireland in 2016, when he was U.S. vice president.