Biden in Belfast Will See Peace Marred by Political Crisis

AP Photo/Christophe Ena
Police stand guard outside the hotel where President Joe Biden will stay in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Tuesday, April 11, 2023.

BELFAST, Northern Ireland (AP) — American grit was essential to getting Northern Ireland’s warring sides to make peace 25 years ago with the Good Friday Agreement.

President Joe Biden arrived in Belfast Tuesday evening to celebrate that anniversary, but few expect him to resolve a new political crisis that has rattled the peace deal and put Northern Ireland’s government on ice.

Biden was greeted at Belfast International Airport by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, and will hold talks with the British leader and representatives of Northern Ireland’s fractious political parties on a trip to Northern Ireland whose main goal, the president said as he boarded Air Force One, is to “keep the peace.”

But he’s not scheduled to visit Stormont, seat of the Northern Ireland Assembly. It has been suspended since the Democratic Unionist Party, which formed half of a power-sharing government, walked out a year ago over a post-Brexit trade dispute.

The president is spending less than 24 hours in Northern Ireland before moving on to the Republic of Ireland, where he will address the Dublin parliament, attend a gala banquet and visit a brace of ancestral hometowns in the east and west of the country during a three-day visit.

Katy Hayward, professor of political sociology at Queen’s University Belfast, said Biden’s visit is a “recognition that the peace process isn’t in a good place, but (also) to remind us of the achievements of the past 25 years.”

“President Biden is continuing on in a long tradition of American presidents who’ve maintained an interest in the peace process in Northern Ireland,” she said. “They see themselves as co-guarantors of the Good Friday Belfast Agreement, which means that they are particularly keen to see the British-Irish relationship be a good one and a close one.”

American intervention played a key role in ending Northern Ireland’s “Troubles,” three decades of violence in which 3,600 people died.

Former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell oversaw almost two years of talks in the 1990s aimed at ending bloodshed involving Irish republican and British loyalist militant groups and U.K. troops. President Bill Clinton coaxed and cajoled reluctant Northern Ireland politicians into compromise.

“Even the night of the agreement, he was on the phone a number of times urging the participants to do the right thing and find that elusive agreement,” said Daniel Mulhall, a former Irish ambassador to the U.S. and the U.K.

The against-the-odds agreement struck on April 10, 1998 committed armed groups to stop fighting, ended direct U.K. rule and set up a Northern Ireland legislature and government with power shared between British unionist and Irish nationalist parties.

That peace has mostly held, allowing a generation to grow up without widespread violence and letting Northern Ireland’s economy grow after years of stagnation. But the power-sharing government has collapsed several times amid lingering distrust between the parties.

Small armed dissident groups continue to mount occasional attacks. On Tuesday police found four suspected pipe bombs in a cemetery in Londonderry, near where youths threw gasoline bombs and set a police vehicle on fire on Easter Monday.

Britain’s departure from the European Union left Northern Ireland poised uneasily between the rest of the U.K. and EU member Ireland, and put the peace agreement under increased strain.

In order to maintain an invisible border between Northern Ireland and the republic — a key pillar of the peace process — new customs checks were imposed for goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the U.K. That angered unionists, who said the new rules undermined Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom.

After much wrangling, Britain and the EU struck a deal in February to remove many of those checks — an agreement welcomed by the U.S., which had urged London and Brussels to end their post-Brexit feud. The DUP, though, says it doesn’t go far enough and has refused to return to government.

Sunak spokesman Jamie Davies insisted Tuesday that the British government still aims to “get Stormont back up and running as quickly as possible” — but it’s far from clear how that will happen. A growing number of people argue that power-sharing must be reformed to reflect a society in which more than 40% of people now identify as neither nationalist nor unionist.

For now, the U.K. government is focusing energy on economic growth rather than a political breakthrough. Sunak has scheduled a Northern Ireland investment summit for September, aimed at building on the 1.5 billion pounds ($1.9 billion) U.S. firms have invested in Northern Ireland over the past decade.

The British government notes that Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit status puts it in a unique economic position: It’s part of the U.K. but also has close ties to the EU’s single market. Brexit opponents note bitterly that the U.K. as a whole walked away from membership in the single market by leaving the bloc.

Biden has appointed Joe Kennedy III, a scion of the Irish-American political dynasty, as his special trade envoy to Northern Ireland.

Mulhall said that reflects a recognition by U.S. authorities “that one of the things they can bring to the party is the economic dividend that American investment in Northern Ireland involves.”

As for unblocking the political stalemate, Mulhall said “it’s always positive to have an American president involved.”

“But I wouldn’t be expecting him to get into the weeds,” he said. “He’s going to give some broad general signals of America’s desire to see the process in Northern Ireland move forward.

“They want to see the violence of the past remain in the past.”