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US president not in Belfast 'to interfere politically'

Rosie Birchard in Belfast, Northern Ireland
April 12, 2023

Joe Biden's trip to Belfast was to mark the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. But some locals hoped he might also help end Northern Ireland's political deadlock. They were to be disappointed.

U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks at Ulster University, Belfast
Biden spoke at Ulster University on Wednesday, his only major engagement in BelfastImage: Clodagh Kilcoyne/REUTERS

It's hard to find a family in Northern Ireland that was not affected by "the Troubles," the decades of violent sectarian conflict that claimed thousands of lives between the late 1960s and 1998.

Clare McHugh, a 41-year-old Belfast resident, has bad memories of her childhood. "There used to be regular bomb threats in my town," she told DW. "Soldiers were just a part of our daily life.

"As a young child, you didn't really comprehend how serious it was. It's not until you get that bit older that you see the devastation and the loss that 'the Troubles' have caused in Northern Ireland," she said.

But in 1998, the Good Friday Agreement — also known as the Belfast Agreement — brought peace through painstakingly crafted trust and diplomacy. Paramilitary groups agreed to lay down their arms, prisoners were released and a plan for power sharing and consent-based, devolved government was laid out. 

Jeffrey Donaldson speaking into a DW microphone
DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson: Biden 'was very clear [...] that he's not here to interfere politically'Image: DW

Washington helped broker the accord and US President Joe Biden devoted much of his speech at Ulster University on Wednesday to reflecting upon the gains of the agreement.

"I come to Belfast to pledge to all the people of Northern Ireland: the United States of America will continue to be your partner in building the future the young people of our world deserve. It matters to us, to Americans and to me personally," he said.

"Let's celebrate 25 extraordinary years by recommitting to renewal, repair, by making this exceptional peace the birthright of every child in Northern Ireland."

End to political deadlock?

But as soon as the address was delivered, Biden left Northern Ireland and crossed the border into Ireland where he will stay until late Friday. The Belfast leg of the trip lasted less than 24 hours with just one public-facing engagement. Blink and you might have missed it.

Many think that's down to the optics of the current situation in Northern Ireland. A quarter of a century after the Good Friday Agreement was signed, peace remains, but a political stalemate means some of the institutions it established are simply not working.

Northern Ireland has had no fully functioning government since elections were held more than a year ago. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) has refused to form an executive, arguing the trading arrangements established after Britain left the European Union pose an existential threat to Northern Ireland's place in the United Kingdom.

Biden promotes peace in Northern Ireland

In his speech, Biden said he hoped the Northern Irish executive and assembly would be restored soon. "I believe democratic institutions established through the Good Friday Agreement remain critical for the future of Northern Ireland," he said.

Biden visit won't change political dynamic: DUP leader

But after Biden's address, DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson told DW, "I don't think the visit today will change the political dynamic."

Donaldson met with Biden on the sidelines of the speech at Ulster University. "He was very clear in the conversation I had with him that he's not here to interfere politically, that it is a matter for the political leadership in Northern Ireland to make the decisions on the way forward," Donaldson said.

The DUP is unsatisfied with the reforms agreed upon by Britain and the European Union that were designed to address the party's post-Brexit concerns. "I think that the [UK] government needs to go further in terms of ensuring our ability to trade within the United Kingdom is not only respected, but is protected in law," Donaldson said.

That means, for now, the deadlock remains. It's a source of frustration for people like Belfast resident Frank Chapman.

"People from either community are starting to talk to each other here," he told DW. "Our politicians get paid to talk to each other and if they're not doing it, they should give their wages back!"

An economic argument for sustained peace

While Biden was careful not to publicly pressure or lecture Northern Irish politicians, he did dangle an economic carrot.

"In the 25 years since the Good Friday Agreement, Northern Ireland's gross domestic product has literally doubled," he said. "I predict to you that if things continue to move in the right direction it will more than triple. There are scores of major American corporations wanting to come here, wanting to invest."

Graffiti on Belfast "peace walls"
So-called 'peace walls' still divide parts of BelfastImage: Photoshot/picture alliance

Biden announced that later this year, the new US special envoy to Northern Ireland for economic affairs, Joe Kennedy, would be leading a trade delegation of American companies to Northern Ireland.

Biden's visit is 'bittersweet'

Ulster University student Kyle McClure, 20, was in the room when President Biden spoke. "It was definitely surreal, from your usual 9 to 5 university day, you know, going out and seeing the leader of the free world in your atrium," he told DW.

McClure knows just how lucky he is. "I was born in 2002. I know nothing but peace. You know, when I ask my parents what it was like growing up in 'the Troubles,' it's hard to believe there was a military presence in every corner," he said. "It's hard to fathom nowadays what it was like to live with the threat of violence every night."

McClure acknowledged that celebrations of the Good Friday Agreement may be overshadowed by ongoing political divisions in Northern Ireland. "It's bittersweet, but that's Northern Ireland for you," he said. "Half the time it works, half the time it doesn't. That's all it is — it's imperfect. But it's perfect in some way."

Edited by: Cathrin Schaer