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12 April 2023

Will Joe Biden’s Northern Ireland visit achieve anything?

The president is looking to reaffirm US influence on the island.

By Rachel Wearmouth

The US president, Joe Biden, last night arrived in Belfast for a four-day visit to the island of Ireland. He has come to mark the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement and to celebrate his Irish roots.

Biden wants to “make sure the Irish accords and Windsor agreements stay in place”, he said when asked what his priorities for the trip were. “Keep the peace and that’s the main thing. It looks like we’re going to keep our fingers crossed.”

Biden’s visit comes at a delicate moment. The Stormont Assembly has been suspended since February last year when the DUP pulled out of power-sharing in opposition to the Northern Ireland protocol, the post-Brexit trading rules between the UK and EU. Sunak had hoped the Windsor agreement he negotiated earlier this year – which will replace the protocol and includes a mechanism for the Northern Irish Assembly to object to new EU rules, known as the Stormont brake – would have encouraged the parties to return to government. But so far it has not.

The situation has led some to argue that the Good Friday Agreement, which provides the main unionist and nationalist parties with the capacity to veto in the power-sharing agreement, needs to be reformed.

Biden is due to engage with leaders of five Northern Irish parties – the DUP, Sinn Féin, the Ulster Unionist Party, the Social Democratic and Labour Party, and the Alliance Party – in a personal effort to break the deadlock. Tony Blair, who negotiated the 1997 peace agreement, said the president could have a “positive” impact but acknowledged that pressuring the DUP to return to Stormont may be “futile”. Yet the former US ambassador to the UK, Philip Reeker, said today that the US can act as a “friend to all sides” to encourage the peace process.

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Biden’s trip to Northern Ireland is remarkably brief. He will hold talks with Sunak – a meeting the New York Times characterised as having been scaled back to a coffee – and give a speech at Ulster University’s new £350m campus, which is seen as a willingness to engage with the next generation.

He then heads to the Republic of Ireland for a two-and-a-half day tour that takes in two of his family’s ancestral homes in the counties of Louth and Mayo. However, as the Times notes here, the president’s focus on his Irish heritage risks offending unionists.

Politics is taking a partial back seat during this trip, with Biden bringing members of his family for his visit to Ireland. The trip’s brevity perhaps underscores the limitations of what American influence can achieve in Ireland right now.

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