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Biden praises Good Friday peace 'dividends' in Belfast visit

Published April 12, 2023last updated April 12, 2023

US President Joe Biden also delivered a keynote speech at the University of Ulster in the Northern Irish capital, Belfast. He is set to visit the Republic for a meeting with officials and his own distant relatives.

US President Joe Biden gave an address marking the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement
US President Joe Biden gave an address marking the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement Image: Patrick Semansky/AP Photo/picture alliance

US President Joe Biden kicked off his public schedule in Northern Ireland on Wednesday after arriving in Belfast to mark the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.

The deal, which ended decades of sectarian violence that killed thousands, has faced testing times in recent years amid discord over post-Brexit trade arrangements and political instability in the province's devolved government.

"The simple truth is that peace and economic opportunity go together," the president said in a speech at the Belfast campus of Ulster University.

Biden trip marks 25th anniversary of Good Friday Agreement

Biden and Sunak talk economy

Biden began his visit by meeting British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak over coffee on Wednesday morning.

"We spoke in particular about the incredible economic opportunities that are there in store for Northern Ireland," Sunak said afterward.

"I know he shares my ambition to see institutions here back up and running, that's what people and businesses in Northern Ireland deserve." 

The US President also met with the leaders of Northern Ireland's five main political parties before his speech. It is unclear if they held separate meetings.

"I hope the assembly and the executive will soon be restored," Biden said afterward. "That's a judgement for you to make, not me, but I hope it happens."

Joe Biden and Rishi Sunak having coffee
Joe Biden met with Rishi Sunak ahead of his speechImage: Kevin Lamarque/REUTERS

"The message is twofold. It's congratulations on 25 years of the Good Friday agreement... [and] to talk about the importance of trying to work on trade and economic policies that benefit all communities as well as the United States," said White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby, who is traveling with Biden.

Biden praises Good Friday Agreement

In his address at the Belfast campus, Biden pointed to the doubling of Northern Ireland's economic output since the Good Friday Agreement and made clear: "It's up to us to keep this going."

"The dividends of peace are all around us," he said. "This very campus is situated intersection where conflict and bloodshed once held the terrible sway."

The president said the Good Friday Agreement is a symbol of "hope and repair" and expressed hope that Northern Ireland's devolved government would be restored soon.

"Protecting the peace, preserving the Belfast Good Friday Agreement is a priority for Democrats and Republicans alike in the United States, and that is unusual today," he said. "This is something that brings Washington together. Brings America together." 

Northern Ireland marks 25 years since Good Friday agreement

Next, Biden will head south to the Republic of Ireland for two-and-a-half days of meetings with officials and distant relatives.

Biden is staunchly proud of his Irish heritage. His great-great-grandfather Owen Finnegan, a shoemaker from County Louth, immigrated to the United States in 1849, followed by several other family members.

Unionists unswayed by visit

The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which has refused to participate in Northern Ireland's power-sharing government for more than a year in protest of trade rules that it says treat Northern Ireland separately from the rest of the United Kingdom, said Biden's visit will not pressure it to change tack.

Sammy Wilson, a DUP lawmaker who sits in the UK Parliament in Westminster, said in an interview on Talk TV that Biden "has got a record of being pro-republican, anti-unionist, anti-British."

Biden pointed to both his British and Irish ancestry in his speech, a move that was recognized by DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson, who said it "indicates hopefully that we have a president that recognizes the United Kingdom is a close ally and friend of the United States."

"I am clear what needs to happen to make the progress that we all desire _ and that is that Northern Ireland's place within the United Kingdom is both respected and protected, and we want to see that in law," he added.

Michelle O'Neill from the republic party Sinn Feinn said that Biden's speech had been "a clear message to the DUP" to get back to work.

How Brexit is threatening peace in Northern Ireland

Security has been stepped up ahead of Biden's visit. On Tuesday, masked protesters threw Molotov cocktails at a police van in the city of Londonderry, also called Derry.

ab, zc/rc (AP, Reuters, AFP)