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Biden arrives in Northern Ireland for peace deal anniversary

April 11, 2023

The Good Friday peace accord anniversary comes amid heightened tensions in Northern Ireland in the aftermath of Brexit. Meanwhile, Northern Ireland police said they found four suspected pipe bombs near Derry.

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President Joe Biden walks with British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak after arriving on Air Force One at Belfast International Airport
Biden's visit to Northern Ireland commemorates the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday agreementImage: Patrick Semansky/AP Photo/picture alliance

US President Joe Biden arrived in Northern Ireland on Tuesday, starting a trip to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement — the deal that ended some 30 years of civil conflict.

During the visit, Biden will also hold talks with British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who greeted the US president as he exited Air Force One.

US President Joe Biden exits Air Force One at Belfast International Airport in Belfast
Biden landed in Belfast late WednesdayImage: Charles McQuillan/AP Photo/picture alliance

He is also scheduled to deliver an address at Ulster University in Belfast on Wednesday. It is the first visit by a US president to Northern Ireland in 10 years.

Biden's visit, and the anniversary, come at a delicate time for Northern Ireland, as it grapples with the repercussions of Brexit on its borders and trade dealings.

The Day with Phil Gayle

Pipebombs found after restless Easter parade

Biden's trip also followed two busy days for law enforcement in Derry, also known as Londonderry, a border city to the west of Belfast. The city has a large republican community and was a historic flashpoint during the decades of violence often called "the Troubles." 

Police said on Tuesday that they had recovered four suspected pipe bombs from a cemetery in the predominantly Catholic and republican Creggan estate overlooking the city. 

"The discovery of these devices was a further sinister and worrying development," Assistant Chief Constable Bobby Singleton said. 

On Easter Monday, the exact 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement's signature, two unregistered parades in the city were staged by people dissatisfied with the peace deal. 

Police said they would have to deploy a larger presence than if the marches had been properly registered beforehand. One ended with footage of masked youths hurling petrol bombs and other incendiary devices at a police vehicle.

Youths throw gasoline bombs at a police Land Rover while Republican protesters opposed to the Good Friday Agreement hold a parade.
Masked people opposing the Good Friday agreement attacked Northern Ireland's police with Molotov CocktailsImage: Peter Morrison/AP/dpa/picture alliance

The British intelligence agency has recently increased Northern Ireland's threat level from domestic terrorism to "severe," a sign it believes an attack is highly probable.

What is the Good Friday Agreement? 

The 1998 deal was the culmination of years of talks.

The agreement ended  the decades of violence known as the Troubles. The conflict pitted largely Protestant unionists who preferred to stay part of the UK against largely Catholic republicans, who wanted to be united with the Republic of Ireland in the south.

The years of conflict often spilled out into mainland Britain, with terrorist attacks striking London.

Chaired by the US in the later stages, the deal settled the UK and Irish governments' respective claims to Northern Ireland. Under the agreement, both sides effectively pledged to respect the outcome of any decision made by the Northern Irish at a possible future referendum. The consent of voters in the south would also be required to change the status quo.

The deal also set out rules on how Northern Ireland's special power-sharing legislature, which demands participation from the largest parties on both sides of the divide, would function. 

And most importantly, it negotiated the permanent cease-fire and disarmament of the militant Provision Irish Republican Army (IRA) and some other comparable paramilitaries. Some outlier groups rejected the accord, splintered from their original groups and continued to fight.

The shadow of the Troubles has returned to Northern Ireland since Brexit made alterations to the conditions upon which the 1998 deal was based.

Despite the doubt Brexit cast on Northern Ireland's trade ties with the rest of the EU, including the Republic of Ireland, these ultimately emerged from the process almost unchanged. Northern Ireland's trade ties with the rest of the UK, however, became subject to some new restrictions as a trade-off.

Britain and the EU recently struck a revised deal that aims to reduce some of the complaints on the Northern Irish side, generally from unionists favoring unbridled trade with the rest of the UK.

With the UK no longer part of the European Union, its trade agreements with the bloc were upended. The Republic of Ireland is an EU member state.

"While it is time to reflect on the solid progress we have made together, we must also recommit to redoubling our efforts on the promise made in 1998 and the agreements that followed," Sunak said in a statement marking the agreement's anniversary.

Northern Ireland marks 25 years since Good Friday agreement

How does the 'Windsor Framework' seek to smooth Brexit tensions?

In February, the UK and the EU reached a new post-Brexit deal for Northern Ireland.

Dubbed the "Windsor Framework," the plan aims to scrap some checks on goods crossing from the rest of the UK into Northern Ireland, and give Northern Irish lawmakers greater say over future EU-related rules.

However, it has yet to garner the needed endorsement at home from the pro-UK Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), with tensions about the deal still high in Belfast. The party said Biden's visit would not pressure it to change course.

How Brexit is threatening peace in Northern Ireland

Biden to reconnect with Irish ancestry

Biden, who quite often refers to his Irish ancestry, plans to use the trip to reconnect with his roots. He is due to spend three days in the Republic of Ireland and address the parliament in Dublin.

The US president is scheduled to meet distant cousins in County Louth on Wednesday. He also plans to visit the western county of Mayo, where his great-great-grandfather grew up, and address thousands of residents there.

Biden is also a symbol of the historic importance of the ties between Ireland and the US. 

Like Biden's ancestors, millions of Irish people crossed the Atlantic in the late 19th century and early 20th century, escaping the famine at home and seeking a better future.

rmt/msh (AFP, Reuters)