BELFAST, Northern Ireland – President Joe Biden called for Northern Ireland to “recommit to renewal and repair” amid political unrest, marking the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement that ended three decades of civil war.
“Northern Ireland will not go back, pray to God,” Biden said Wednesday during remarks at Ulster University in Belfast. “The lesson of the Good Friday Agreement is this: At times when things seem fragile or easily broken, that is when hope and hard work is needed the most.”
In a 22-minute speech, Biden celebrated a Belfast “transformed by peace” that he said is “alive with commerce, art and, I’d argue, inspiration.”
It’s a drastically different picture than the violence and barricades that dominated the city for three decades before the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.
“It’s up to us to keep this going, keep doing the work that we’ve done every day for the last 25 years to sustain the peace and unleash this incredible economic opportunity that is just beginning.”
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Biden says he wants the Northern Ireland Assembly restored
Biden’s visit to Northern Ireland – his first stop in a four-day swing to the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland – came as political division threatens the very agreement Biden came to celebrate.
The Northern Ireland government hasn’t operated for more than a year amid a political impasse between Northern Ireland’s two major parties: British unionists and Irish nationalists. The Northern Ireland Assembly has stopped convening altogether.
Biden discussed recent threats of violence in Northern Ireland, including the attempted murder of John Caldwell, a top police official, which law enforcement believes was carried about by the New IRA, affiliated with the Irish Republican Army
“I hope the assembly and the executive will soon be restored,” Biden said. “That’s a judgment for you to make, not me.”
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‘Coming home’ Biden says in visit to Ireland
- Exploring Irish roots: After his remarks in Belfast, Biden flew south to the Republic of Ireland, where he traced his Irish roots in County Louth, home to his Finnegan ancestors on his late mother’s side of the family. “Feels like I’m coming home,” Biden said as he toured the Carlingford Castle, built in the 12th century, in a steady rainfall.
- A guarded city: Amid a terrorism threat elevated to “severe” in Northern Ireland, much of Belfast’s city center, which includes Biden’s hotel, was blocked off by police to pedestrians. Crowds lined the streets to watch Biden’s motorcade arrive at the university.
- Meeting British PM: Before his remarks, Biden met and had tea with British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who is in Belfast for the ceremony. “Heck of a view out there,” Biden said, looking out the 23rd-floor window of a hotel conference room.
- Listening to dispute: Biden also sat down with leaders of Northern Ireland’s political parties, including the Democratic Unionist Party, which left the Northern Ireland government following Brexit. “I’m going to listen,” Biden told reporters.
Why isn’t Northern Ireland’s government operating?
The Good Friday Agreement, which the Clinton administration helped broker, established a devolved local government in Northern Ireland with power shared among Protestant loyalist parties that pushed to remain part of the U.K. and Irish Catholic nationalist parties that sought to unify with the Republic of Ireland.
But members of the Democratic Unionist Party – conservatives who backed the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the EU – pulled out of the shared-power agreement after Brexit.
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They oppose an arrangement between the U.K. and EU that preserved the free flow of trade between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, which share the only land border between the U.K. and the EU.
Biden on agreement: ‘It shook political gravity’
Biden said the Good Friday Agreement “shook political gravity,” crediting former Sen. George Mitchel, who served as President Bill Clinton’s special envoy, and Northern Ireland leaders for sticking through tough negotiations.
“Peace was not inevitable,” he said. “There were no guarantees that the deal on paper would hold, no guarantees that it would be able to deliver the progress that we celebrate today.”
Biden said “the American people are with you every step of the way,” adding that a large share of Americans is “invested” in the future of Northern Ireland.
“Your history is our history. But even more important, your future is America’s future.”
Biden stays out of larger political fight
On the streets of Belfast, residents seemed generally excited about Biden’s visit – but several took note of his short stay.
Biden spent less than one day in Northern Ireland with plans to spend the bulk of his trip in the Republic of Ireland.
That’s probably not by accident, given the politically sensitive time in Northern Ireland.
Amanda Sloat, the NSC’s director for Europe, disputed the perception, suggested by a reporter, that Biden’s trip is a “taxpayer-funded family reunion,” pointing to Biden’s packed schedule of events.
Biden has drawn past criticism from unionists. Even so, the president avoided taking sides among the competing parties in his remarks. And less time in Belfast meant fewer chances to ruffle feathers.
Reach Joey Garrison on Twitter @joeygarrison.