President Joe Biden has already left Northern Ireland. In fact, he was barely here.
The American leader left Belfast as quickly as he could and flew to where he really wanted to be: exploring his ancestral roots in the Republic of Ireland.
Biden’s 17-hour visit to Northern Ireland – he may have spent half of that time sleeping – ended with a speech at the University of Ulster, carefully written to ensure the notoriously blunder-prone prime minister did not commit any diplomatic blunders.
The official reason for his stopover in Belfast was, of course, the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, also known as the Belfast Agreement.
The visit was intended to include a presidential address to the Northern Ireland Assembly in Stormont, as well as photos of smiling politicians.
But it wasn’t to be.
Pictured: US President Joe Biden with Gerry Adams and IRA terrorist Rita O’Hare in September 2017
Pictured: Biden speaking at the Windsor Bar and Restaurant in Dundalk, Ireland on April 12, 2023
There has been no functioning government in Belfast since the Democratic Unionist Party pulled out of Stormont in protest at the imposition of the Northern Ireland Protocol, the EU trade settlement agreed upon by Boris Johnson as Prime Minister, which took effect in January 2021.
If Biden’s visit had one purpose, it was to help restore a working government in Northern Ireland. But this, too, would always elude him.
The president’s understanding of both the 1998 agreement and Rishi Sunak’s Windsor Framework – signed with the EU last month and aimed at reducing controls on goods arriving in Northern Ireland from Britain – is at its best elementary.
As he boarded Air Force One for its Dublin jaunt yesterday afternoon, Biden cheerfully told the press that he would make sure what he called the “Irish Accord” and “Windsor Accord” remained in place.
Needless to say, none of these things exist. He meant the Good Friday Agreement and the Windsor Framework.
His malapropisms do not inspire confidence. Biden’s ancestors apparently left Ireland more than 150 years ago in what he called “coffin ships.”
Yet he considers himself the most “Irish” president since John F. Kennedy – and, like his somewhat more charismatic predecessor, is also Catholic.
When Bill Clinton visited Northern Ireland in a “swan song” in 2000, shortly before ending his presidency, thousands flocked to the streets to watch the cavalcade.
At the Odyssey Arena in Belfast, Clinton delivered a rousing speech, telling the crowd how “very important peace in Northern Ireland is to the rest of the world.”
With Biden yesterday, the mood was vastly different.
Biden talks to people at a pub in Dundalk, Ireland April 12, 2023
The highway at the international airport was closed for three hours before his arrival. Hundreds of police officers were brought in from England to help with security, some keen to tell residents they too thought the security measures were overdone.
There was no real excitement and many jokes were made about whether the aging president would even understand where he was. (King Charles’s visit last September after the Queen’s death caused genuine excitement – with a fraction of the security.)
Why the apathy? After all, a visit from the leader of the free world to the UK’s smallest country should make any Ulster man or woman proud, especially given the region’s complicated history, which I know all too well myself.
I was born on a small farm in Co Antrim where I write these words today. Even as a child I remember the sporadic IRA terrorism of the 1950s.
By the 1970s, the worst era of the Troubles, I had moved to London. Going home regularly to visit family, I saw how different life had become.
There were streets where you could only enter through a gate and after house searches. You had to open your bag for inspection before entering a store. Bomb threats were a fact of life.
My younger brother was still at school at the time: trips to the center of Belfast quickly became too dangerous. Every evening the television brought news of a new bomb, another shot by a soldier – and the terrible thing is that it happened so regularly that people often just shrugged.
All this was the background to the Belfast Agreement. I supported the deal, even though I was disgusted that convicted IRA terrorists would be released from prison as a result. I thought it would bring peace – and it did.
But it didn’t bring real community cohesion – as a spate of recent violence has shown.
When I left the Commons in 2019 after 30 years as an MP in London, I moved back home, although I travel to the Lords most weeks.
So if I and other loyal British citizens couldn’t get around to cheering on Biden this week, it’s clear something has gone profoundly wrong. The truth is that any trade unionist with an ounce of common sense realizes that Biden will never be their friend.
Pictured: Biden meets with members of the local public on April 12, 2023 in Dundalk, Ireland
He is a staunch Republican and little time needs to be spent researching to find a litany of his offensive remarks to the union community.
He is pictured smiling next to former Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams – long suspected of involvement with the Provisional IRA, though Adams has always denied this – and wrapping his arm around the deceased fugitive IRA terrorist Rita O’Hare in Washington.
Biden also likes to tell the story of his mother Jean, who hated the English so much that she once slept on the floor of a hotel room instead of resting her head in a bed where the late queen would have slept.
At a 2015 St. Patrick’s Day event, he exclaimed, “If you’re orange, you’re not welcome here!” His words were applauded by the hordes of Americans who love to dress in green, recite Irish poetry and take a bland look at an Ireland millions of them have never seen.
But these and other comments are deeply insulting to Unionists who have had to brave an IRA terror campaign funded largely by Irish Americans for more than 30 years.
What does all this mean for the future of the Union and the prospects for peace and stability?
Well, as long as Biden is president, any reconciliation at Stormont feels very distant.
Think about this for a moment: there is an internal customs border between two countries of the United Kingdom. Biden seems happy with this.
Biden pauses as he speaks at the Windsor Bar and Restaurant in Dundalk, Ireland, on April 12, 2023
The truth is that, even under the Windsor Framework, importing and exporting in Northern Ireland remains highly problematic.
Gardeners purchasing seeds and plants from specialist retailers in the UK must complete complex ‘phytosanitary certificates’.
Bringing your pet across the Irish Sea will still require paperwork, including a statement that Fido will not be taken to the Republic.
Passengers leaving Belfast on flights to the EU cannot purchase duty-free goods, but anyone leaving England, Scotland or Wales can.
No self-respecting sovereign country in the world would peacefully allow part of its territory to be ceded to a foreign institution: the EU and its court. Yet Biden is still calling on Unionists to go back to Stormont to implement these rules. Would he say the same thing to a state in the US?
Interest from any knowledgeable and impartial world leader in the peace and prosperity of ‘our little country’ is always welcome.
But the anti-British and staunchly republican Biden is no such person.
Perhaps, in retrospect, it’s a good thing he didn’t stay long.
Baroness Hoey was Labor MP for Vauxhall from 1989-2019.