Joe Biden is allegedly in possession of a “deep hatred of the United Kingdom… especially the English” – at least according to one presenter on GB News. The US president “hates the United Kingdom”, explains the unionist former first minister of Northern Ireland, Arlene Foster. “Biden, like Barack Obama before him, has shown nothing but contempt for Great Britain and the special relationship,” an op-ed in the Telegraph argues.
Quite the slew of accusations. Biden’s crime? His much publicised four-day tour of Ireland. The president is proud of his Irish roots – his ancestors emigrated to America from Ireland in the 1850s, fleeing the Great Famine. He quotes Seamus Heaney. He is the second Catholic president of the US (the other being John F Kennedy). Like all Democrats, Biden sees the Good Friday Agreement as partially his party’s legacy.
The depth of the feeling is real, even if it sometimes manifests itself in Irish stereotyping (photo-ops in the pub, for example). But so far this trip is a standard exercise: Biden appeals to a broad Irish-American electoral base, Ireland flexes its soft power, everyone wins. It also serves as a reminder to the world that a trade deal between the UK and America relies on the preservation of the fragile peace north of the border – something Biden and his team have long made clear.
So far, it is rather hard to understand the allegation of anti-Britishness. Biden has been to Britain several times, he has been diplomatic on the Northern Ireland Protocol, he has praised the statecraft of the Windsor Framework, Rishi Sunak‘s amendment to the protocol. Sunak already has a better relationship with the US president than Liz Truss or Boris Johnson ever did.
No, the problem is not Biden’s anti-Britishness. It is those who think celebrating Irishness is the same as demeaning Britishness; that no one could possibly love both; that in this world, diplomacy is a zero-sum game.
It’s hard to avoid that rather strong whiff of sour grapes. It is easier – it seems – to see Biden’s visit to Ireland as proof of his anti-Britishness than it is to accept it as proof of Ireland’s diplomatic success.
Ireland is used to this. There is a contingent in Westminster – once led by the backbench Tories in the European Research Group, but whose tendrils reach all corners of politics – who deem Ireland too small to wield serious power, too small to be taken so seriously, who see modern Ireland as a country with ideas above its station. The Sun suggested in 2019 that Ireland’s attempts to “wreck Brexit” were a “suicidal failure of statesmanship”.
This contingent is the same group of people who for years dismissed Leo Varadkar, the taoiseach between 2017 and 2020, and again now, as a mere patsy of the European Union, a foolish crony of Brussels – “not up to the task when it comes to Brexit” according to the Telegraph in 2018. Throughout the tedious withdrawal negotiations they balked at the notion of Ireland as a country capable of self-direction.
Ireland’s increasing psychological distance from Britain, and its outsized soft power, has been rather hard to accept. The ludicrous accusation that Joe Biden’s affinity for Ireland proves his anti-Britishness is just another by-product of this.
Is this evidence of a slowly unfolding national identity crisis? Britain used to be Ireland’s master. Now an American president warns Britain not to threaten Irish peace. Ireland used to take its cues from London, but the pandemic proved that it now cleaves to the European Union.
Brexit did not force this realisation but it certainly hastened it: sneering at the small nation on the edge of Europe doesn’t work any more. Biden’s trip is just a reminder of that.
[See also: Will Joe Biden’s Northern Ireland visit achieve anything?]