Biden under political fire in restive Northern Ireland

World

Published: 2023-04-12 16:09

Last Updated: 2024-06-15 06:01


Biden under political fire in restive Northern Ireland
Biden under political fire in restive Northern Ireland

US President Joe Biden entered the political cauldron of Northern Ireland on Wednesday, using a brief visit to promote the benefits of enduring peace and investment, but already facing heated criticism from pro-UK hardliners.

Following a late-night greeting in blustery weather from UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, Biden arrived with the British-ruled province again gripped by political and sectarian squalls, 25 years on from a US-brokered peace agreement.

The Irish-American president was due to meet Sunak, and greet the leaders of Northern Ireland's feuding political parties, before delivering a speech at a newly opened campus of Ulster University in central Belfast.

Biden said Tuesday the priority for his trip -- which includes three days in his ancestral homeland, the Republic of Ireland -- was "to keep the peace" in Northern Ireland and help unlock its political paralysis.

But senior figures in the pro-UK Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which is under pressure to resume local power-sharing, were strikingly undiplomatic about the president.

Sammy Wilson, a DUP member of the UK parliament in Westminster, branded Biden "anti-British" and accused America's second Catholic president of having "made his antipathy towards Protestants in particular very well known".

Another DUP lawmaker, Nigel Dodds, suggested any mediation efforts would prove futile.

"Pressure from an American administration which is so transparently pro-nationalist constitutes no pressure on us at all," he told the Daily Telegraph newspaper.

- 'Part of my soul' -

Devolved government in Belfast is a key plank of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, but it collapsed 14 months ago over the DUP's trenchant opposition to post-Brexit trade arrangements in Northern Ireland.

Despite Britain and the European Union agreeing to overhaul them earlier this year, the party is yet to back the new trading terms and allow the restoration of Belfast's Stormont legislature.

Nonetheless, Biden's visit will mark the "tremendous progress" since the accords largely ended armed conflict between pro-Irish and pro-British militants in April 1998, the White House said.

Biden's defenders note his delegation includes Joe Kennedy III, a scion of the Irish-American Kennedy clan, who was appointed special envoy for economic affairs in Northern Ireland and will remain in Belfast for several days.

"I think the track record of the president shows that he's not anti-British," Amanda Sloat, National Security Council Senior Director for Europe, told reporters Wednesday.

"The president has been very actively engaged throughout his career, dating back to when he was a senator, in the peace process in Northern Ireland."

His message to the DUP and other parties would be one of "strong support for seeing the peace process move forward" alongside "broad support for the return of devolved government", she said.

Less than 24 hours after arriving in Northern Ireland, Biden will head on to Ireland, which he says is "part of my soul", paying visits to the hometowns of his 19th-century ancestors.

- Pipe bombs -

Sectarian violence remains a concern north of the border, with Britain's MI5 security agency elevating its terrorism threat level for the territory ahead of Biden's visit.

On Monday, masked youths pelted police vehicles with petrol bombs during an illegal march by hardline nationalists in Londonderry, which is also known as Derry.

Police in Northern Ireland on Tuesday said that four suspected pipe bombs were retrieved from a cemetery in the Creggan area of the city.

"All of these devices were located in the same area where clothes worn by participants in (Monday's) unnotified Easter parade were removed under the cover of umbrellas and burnt," officers said.

Biden has brushed off any security concerns, and will see up close how much redevelopment has transformed Belfast since 1998.

Biden's five-star hotel in Belfast only opened in 2018.

Before 1998, the only place for visiting dignitaries to stay was the nearby Europa, which was attacked so often by the Irish Republican Army paramilitary group that it became known as the most bombed hotel in Europe.

Deirdre Heenan, professor of social policy at Ulster University, told AFP that DUP hardliners were "uncomfortable with how he (Biden) wears his Irishness on his sleeve".

But she added: "We cannot afford to turn our back on such an engaged advocate for a small place, and one who has just appointed an economic envoy."