Biden to address Irish parliament on 'homecoming' visit

AFP , Thursday 13 Apr 2023

After a frosty encounter north of the border, US President Joe Biden is assured of a far warmer welcome by lawmakers in Ireland on Thursday during a visit to the country of his ancestors.

US President Joe Biden (R) greets members of the public as he leaves the Windsor Bar in Dundalk on April 12, 2023, during his four day trip to Northern Ireland and Ireland for the 25th anniversary commemorations of the Good Friday Agreement . AFP


Biden, who is only the second Catholic president in America's history, will address the Irish parliament, known as the Oireachtas, in Dublin, following in steps first walked by John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

In June, 1963, he became the first sitting president to visit Ireland -- five months before his assassination.

In his speech, Kennedy remarked that the parliament building -- Leinster House -- had once belonged to his ancestors the Fitzgeralds, the earls of Kildare.

But, he joked, "I have not come here to claim it".

Instead, he dwelt on "the many and the enduring links which have bound the Irish and the Americans since the earliest days", when both were engaged in struggle against the British.

Unlike JFK, Biden cannot boast of noble ancestors in his lineage, but some of his forebears fled famine under British rule and congregated in hardscrabble Scranton, Pennsylvania.

In his own address Thursday, Biden will echo his predecessor in underscoring "the deep and enduring historical, cultural, political and economic ties between our countries", according to senior White House adviser Amanda Sloat.

Coming home

On Wednesday, he observed a disembarkation point for some of his 19th-century Irish forebears, following a speech in British-run Northern Ireland.

Braving a typical Irish drizzle, the 80-year-old leader -- who declares Ireland to be "part of my soul" -- said it felt "wonderful" and like "I'm coming home" while visiting Carlingford Castle.

His one-night stop in Belfast had been shadowed by recriminations of pro-UK unionists, who accused him of harbouring "anti-British" feelings a quarter-century after a US-brokered peace agreement.

Biden told an audience at Belfast's Ulster University that he cared about peace for the whole of the divided island.

He urged the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to end its boycott of Northern Ireland's Stormont legislature, predicting billions of dollars of new investment from "scores of major American corporations" if political stability returns.

But the DUP's leader, Jeffrey Donaldson, promptly declared that the visit "doesn't change the political dynamic in Northern Ireland".

Meanwhile the brevity of his stay there -- which included a brief "coffee meeting" with UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak -- underwhelmed some British observers.

"It was hard to see the point of his visit," the Daily Mail's political editor wrote in a commentary.


Before his speech in Dublin, Biden will meet Irish President Michael D. Higgins and Prime Minister Leo Varadkar -- whom he welcomed to the White House for St. Patrick's Day last month, when the White House fountain ran emerald green.

After the remarks, Varadkar will host a banquet in Biden's honour at Dublin Castle, the ancient seat of English and British rule in Ireland.

Before jetting home on Friday, Biden will head to Ballina in County Mayo, northwestern Ireland, another jumping-off point for ancestors who emigrated to Pennsylvania.

Biden still counts relatives living in the area, including Joe Blewitt, a third cousin, who works as a plumber.

"It's emotional, it's a very proud day for our family and for Ireland," Blewitt, 43, told AFP. "Ballina's very special to him."

Biden's ancestry is never far from his lips, leading to accusations among Northern Irish unionists that his visit to the Emerald Isle is unabashed campaigning ahead of a re-election run.

"The relative strength of Irish-Americans as a percentage of all Americans is dropping steadily, but Ireland retains an outsized influence on the US," said Coilin Parsons, director of global Irish studies at Washington's Georgetown University.

"From music to literature and more, Irish culture has always found an eager public in the US, and not just among Irish-Americans," he told AFP.

But the gaffe-prone president made a characteristic slip-up at a community gathering at a bar in Dundalk late Wednesday, as he lauded former Irish rugby player and distant cousin Rob Kearney.

Biden praised Kearney for having "beat the hell out of the Black and Tans", confusing a ruthless British army auxiliary force which fought Irish independence rebels in the early 1920s with New Zealand's All Blacks rugby team.

The White House corrected the record.

"I think for everyone in Ireland who is a rugby fan, it was incredibly clear that the President was talking about the All Blacks," Sloat told reporters Thursday.

"It was certainly clear to his cousin sitting next to him."

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