Biden investment pledge is no fix for Sunak’s N. Ireland problem

President Joe Biden meets UK Prime Minister Rish Sunak April 12, 2023. Photo: videograb

U.S. President Joe Biden navigated sensitive issues of identity that divide Northern Ireland, and even dangled the carrot of major investment if its peace process endures and power-sharing government is restored.

But his long-awaited speech in Belfast on Wednesday is unlikely to provide the game-changing moment that ends the region’s political paralysis, which is now a serious headache for the British government and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. His trip, so far, has also captured the at times awkward diplomatic relationship between the U.S. and U.K. under his administration. His affinity to Ireland, and skepticism about the U.K.’s approach to Northern Ireland, is central to that.

Northern Ireland has been without a government since February 2022, when the Democratic Unionist Party boycotted it in protest at post-Brexit trading rules it says align the region with the European Union and weaken its place in the U.K. Sunak has spent political capital on resolving the dispute, reaching a deal with the E.U. to ease the Brexit impact and trying to persuade unionists the economic benefits of having a foot in the bloc’s single market are worthy of compromise.

Those efforts form the backdrop to Biden’s visit to mark 25 years since the Good Friday Agreement ended decades of violence known as “The Troubles.” As in 1998, U.S. involvement could prove useful in trying to end the current deadlock, and Biden’s promise that “scores of major American corporations” want to invest echoed Bill Clinton’s intervention in the 1990s.

“The simple truth is that peace and economic opportunity go together,” Biden said. “I hope the assembly and the executive will soon be restored.”

Yet there was no sign of the DUP, which was the only major political party in Northern Ireland to oppose the 1998 peace accord, backing down. Leader Jeffrey Donaldson said Biden’s speech didn’t move the political needle, while Jim Shannon, a DUP politician in the U.K. Parliament, said the president should have come with ideas to solve the impasse that bring unionists onside.

That stance is not surprising, according to Katy Hayward, professor of political sociology at Queen’s University Belfast. The DUP’s anxieties about Brexit and Northern Ireland’s place in the U.K. “are not something that can be changed by anything that the president can say,” she said following Biden’s speech.

“There’s limitation to what an external player can give with respect to those wider existential concerns of unionism,” she said, adding that the DUP are likely to want to gauge their support base in local elections in May before considering any change of position.

It means that Biden’s visit, so far, has been a mixed result for Sunak and the British government. Brexit and the risk it posed to Northern Ireland’s peace process had tested the relationship between London and Washington under Biden, who speaks often of his Irish heritage and opposed the U.K.’s hardline approach to negotiations with the E.U. under Sunak’s predecessors, including Boris Johnson and Liz Truss.

At the same time, some British officials were irritated by what they saw as U.S. interventions that favored the Irish or E.U. position, while some DUP politicians including former leader Arlene Foster have accused Biden of being anti-British.

In his speech, Biden appeared determined to counter some of that criticism, including referencing some of his English ancestry. He also praised Sunak and E.U. President Ursula von der Leyen for reaching a deal on Northern Ireland.

And while the DUP didn’t budge, Biden’s speech will have made a difference, according to Hayward at Queen’s. “It gives some momentum, and certainly a boost, to those who are outside of the political system who are just trying to make a go of it, including in business,” she said.

One U.K. official said on condition of anonymity that Biden may have spent more time in Belfast if the executive was running. Others had feared he would swerve the Good Friday Agreement anniversary events because the DUP are still boycotting the government, so there is some relief he turned up at all.

Still, it hasn’t been lost on British officials that the president will spend less than half of his visit on the U.K. side of the Irish border, before traveling to Dublin. He only had a quick tea with Sunak on Wednesday after a brief brush-by on the tarmac when Air Force One landed in Belfast on Tuesday night.

There is no joint press conference and no visit to London, with Biden instead choosing to spend time connecting with his family roots in the Republic of Ireland. Biden also won’t be attending the coronation of King Charles III in May, with his wife, Jill, traveling in his place.

Biden has also shown little interest in negotiating a free-trade agreement with the U.K., which had been seen by London as a potential benefit of Brexit.

Sunak wants better relations with the U.S. on including on trade and investment, according to people familiar with the matter, who said the two countries are already in lockstep on Russia’s war in Ukraine and broader defense issues.

That push may now have to wait until a planned meeting in Washington in June. For Biden, his trip is a tribute to his family history as he prepares for another election campaign. He was born in Pennsylvania but traces his great-great grandparents back to the Irish counties Mayo and Louth.

“Northeast Pennsylvania will be written on my heart,” Biden wrote before a previous trip in 2016. “But Ireland will be written on my soul.”



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