Northern Ireland’s Belfast — When President Joe Biden was alone with Covid at the White House last summer, a 320-page paperback sat atop the stack of books on his desk: “JFK in Ireland.”
Five months before his assassination, the last Irish Catholic president visited his native motherland. He later told his aides that it was the “greatest four days of my life.”
Sixty years later, the current Irish Catholic president (Secret Service codename: Celtic) departs Tuesday for his trip that will make an impression – first to Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, and then to Ireland from Wednesday to Saturday.
This week’s trip is half homecoming, part statecraft, and party politics. It represents a critical junction of Biden’s deeply felt personal past and his engrained sense of American foreign policy as a force for lasting good.
The visit coincides with the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, which ended decades of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland known as The Troubles. The accord was the result of tremendous American investment, particularly from Democrats such as Bill Clinton and Sen. George Mitchell, a legacy Biden is anxious to underline when he visits Belfast beginning Tuesday.
But his engagements in the Republic of Ireland later this week, including travels in County Louth and County Mayo to investigate his family roots, will best highlight what Biden has regarded as maybe his single most distinguishing characteristic.
“As many of you know, I, like all of you, am proud of my Irish ancestry,” he remarked last month at a St. Patrick’s Day luncheon. “And it’s been a part of my soul for as long as I can remember.”
Last month, Ireland’s prime minister described Biden as “unmistakably a son of Ireland,” and he has attributed his anger, nostalgic streak, politics, and sense of humor to his Irish heritage at various times. He routinely references poets such as William Butler Yeats and Seamus Heaney; the most famous piece from Yeats’ “Easter 1916” has featured 12 times in Biden’s public speeches since taking office.
“People think I do it because I’m Irish,” Biden recently explained. “I do it because they’re the most talented poets.”
Biden’s most recent trip coincided with the Brexit vote
The White House distributed a lengthy family genealogy dating back to 1803, to the shoemakers, civil engineers, and union overseers who would eventually leave Ireland on ships destined for America. The majority fled during the Irish famine of the 1840s and 1850s aboard what Biden refers to as “coffin ships” since so many of their passengers died on the voyage.
His ancestors’ experiences have left indelible impressions on Biden, whose persona is defined by eternal optimism despite his own experience of profound loss.
In his memoir from 2017, he recalled how one of his Senate colleagues, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, once said about us Irish: “To fail to realize that life is going to knock you down is to fail to appreciate the Irishness of existence.”
In addition to meeting with Irish officials, speaking to Parliament, and giving a speech at night in front of St. Muredach’s Cathedral in the northwest of Ireland, Biden has long planned to return to Ireland in his capacity as president. He will depart for Washington on Saturday. The cathedral purchased the 28,000 bricks Biden’s great-great-great-grandfather Edward Blewitt sold to build its pillars in 1828, according to the White House.
A handful of his family members will accompany him on the journey. In 2016, as vice president, he spent six days crisscrossing the island with many grandchildren and his sister, holding a newly developed family tree.
Biden happened to be in Ireland on the same day as a majority of British voters decided to leave the European Union, a choice he opposed and that raised difficult concerns for Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom.
Brexit’s legacy loomed large as advisers began organizing his visit as president. A trade dispute between the United Kingdom and the European Union, to which the Republic of Ireland belongs, put the Good Friday Agreement and its fragile peace to the test.
When Biden took office, he took a keen interest in the issue. He told successive British prime ministers that the disagreement must be resolved by the anniversary, implicitly pinning his entire trip on it. After months of discussions, current Prime Minister Rishi Sunak settled in February, though Northern Ireland’s biggest unionist political party has yet to sign up. Still, the agreement prepared the path for Biden’s visit later this month.
Sunak is likely to see Biden when he arrives, and the two will hold meetings on Wednesday in Belfast.
Biden thinks that his trip will serve as a reminder of what continuous diplomacy can achieve at a time when America’s position in the world is being challenged. An isolationist streak among Republicans has cast doubt on Washington’s global leadership’s long-term viability. The US-mediated Good Friday Accord is one of the most enduring examples of US diplomacy from the close of the twentieth century.
“President Biden has been talking about the restoration of liberal internationalism, democracy versus autocracy, and all that sort of thing.” So, I believe he wants to see excellent instances of the rule of law in US foreign policy. And this is an excellent example. “This was a significant accomplishment,” said Liam Kennedy, head of the Clinton Centre for American Studies at University College Dublin.
“The Good Friday Accord is absolutely one of those situations in Washington where you can get real bipartisan buy-in,” Kennedy remarked. “Trust me, that’s an exceptional occurrence.”
The Involvement of the US in the Good Friday Accord
The deadly conflicts between Protestant Unionists who favor staying a part of the United Kingdom and Catholic Irish Nationalists who support reunification with the Republic have largely been forgotten. The Troubles resulted in around 3,500 deaths, the majority of whom were civilians, and thousands more wounded.
As a senator, Biden was a vocal supporter of American peacekeeping activities in Northern Ireland. He also opposed extraditing IRA suspects from the United States to Britain, claiming that the court system in Northern Ireland at the time was unjust.
In a cover story in 1988, he told Irish America magazine (headline: “Fiery Joe Biden: White House bound?”) that as president, he’d be involved in trying to establish a peace agreement.
“If we have a moral commitment to other regions of the world, why do we not have a moral obligation to Ireland?” It runs in our veins. “It’s blood from my blood, a bone from my bone,” he explained.
A decade later, three-way talks between the United States, Ireland, and the United Kingdom produced the Good Friday Agreement, which tried to stop the carnage by establishing a power-sharing administration between unionists and nationalists.
Nevertheless, in the quarter-century since the agreement was made, that government has only functioned infrequently, and it has been suspended for more than a year after the Democratic Unionists resigned due to the Brexit trade dispute.
Biden’s travel to Northern Ireland this week, according to John Finucane, a member of the British Parliament from the Irish nationalist Sinn Fein party, will be a “great assist” in addressing some of the lingering issues.
Finucane, a barrister whose father was murdered in 1989 by Loyalist paramilitaries working with UK state troops, said Biden’s visit reminded him of America’s role in peacekeeping.
“It’s no secret that I don’t think we would have had a peace process, let alone a Good Friday Agreement, if the American administration, and subsequent American administrations, had not been involved in executing our peace,” he stated. “Joe Biden has a long track record of supporting our peace effort.” So I believe it’s extremely appropriate that he’ll be here next week.”
Yet, the possibility of violence has never completely vanished, as evidenced by British intelligence services raising the terrorism threat level in Northern Ireland from “serious” to “severe” in late March.
The cost of “Operation Rondoletto,” which will take place over the Easter weekend ahead of Biden’s arrival, is estimated to be over $8.7 million (£7 million), according to the police service, and will involve motorcycle escort policemen, guns specialists, and search specialists.
When asked last month whether the increased terror risk would deter him from traveling, Biden appeared unconcerned.
“They can’t keep me out,” he replied.