Why Joe Biden’s whirlwind trip to Belfast went better than it looked

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Belfast ̵1; He came, he saw…and he got out as fast as he could.

But Joe Biden’s brief visits to Northern Ireland on Tuesday night and Wednesday — 18 hours total, about half of them in bed — contained none of the gaffes that previously blighted his diplomatic copybook.

Indeed, the US president successfully navigated the famously choppy political waters of Northern Ireland, avoiding throwing the spotlight on the failure of his unity government – ​​and even revealing a hidden and more hopeful reality: Off-camera, these allegedly warring politicians get along really well.

Wednesday’s gathering at the University of Ulster in Belfast brought Northern Ireland’s opposing political leaders – including the key figure blocking a revival of power-sharing, Democratic Unionist chief Geoffrey Donaldson – finally shoulder to shoulder, together selfie-shooting biden,

The president avoided confronting Donaldson directly about his party’s annual blockade of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

And instead of extolling his famous Irish Catholic roots, Biden’s speech Noted the English and Protestant elements of his family tree and the disproportionate contribution of Ulster Scots immigrants to the foundation of the United States.

“The family ties, the pride, those Ulster Scots immigrants who helped found and build my country run so deep,” Biden told the audience.

“Men born in Ulster were among those who signed the Declaration of Independence in the United States, pledging their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor to liberty … Your history is our history.”

If Biden had punches to throw in the direction of Democratic Unionists, he pulled them.

Speaking to POLITICO, a clearly relieved Donaldson later said he appreciated the president’s “balanced and balanced remarks” — and distanced himself from his unionist allies. scathing criticism of Biden as a poodle to Irish nationalism and even the outlawed IRA.

He also rejected a claim by his predecessor as DUP leader, Arlene Foster, that Biden “hates the United Kingdom,” saying: “The United Kingdom and the United States have a strong alliance and we will build on that.” want to build.”

Donaldson said that during a brief conversation backstage he was reassured by the President “that he respects the integrity of Northern Ireland, that he respects our ability to restore it.” [power-sharing] The institutions are based on the premise that we respect what was said in the Belfast Agreement – ​​that Northern Ireland remains an integral part of the United Kingdom, and there should be no barriers to doing business within the United Kingdom.

The backdrop of the speech was one of surprising unity, with unionists and Irish nationalists chatting amicably in the audience against a background music of soft jazz.

Conor Murphy of Sinn Féin – Irish Republican Party Finance Minister in a five-party government collapsed in october Due to DUP obstruction – the former Ulster Unionist leader laughed heartily with Mike Nesbitt when the two discussed power-sharing.

Murphy later told Politico, “Parties work well together when the opportunity arises.”

He said Biden’s speech diplomatically avoided assigning blame for the Stormont standoff and focused on building a better Northern Ireland for today’s Ulster University students after a paramilitary ceasefire in the mid-1990s Too young to remember the three decades of bloodshed that ended. ,

But Murphy said: “Biden’s pitch is about the future. The DUP didn’t get that. If they think they are somehow off the hook here because they didn’t get a slap from an American President. Well, the rest of this society is moving forward with or without them.

US President Joe Biden delivers a speech at the Windsor Bar in Dundalk, IrelandJim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

Most of those present agreed that even though some leaders wanted Biden to visit the Stormont Parliament House overlooking Belfast, the president’s failure to do so meant that his failure to form a new government was a failure to make the trip. The central image was not formed.

“Of course it is a missed opportunity. We do not have an assembly and an executive,” said Naomi Long, leader of the centre-ground Alliance party and justice minister in the failed government.

“But it would be ridiculous to go to Stormont today when it’s not working,” she said.

The acting speaker of the assembly, Alex Maskey, who is also from Sinn Féin, agreed that Biden was probably right to decline his own invitation to visit what is essentially ground zero of Northern Ireland’s political dysfunction.

“It runs the risk of underscoring the problem,” Maskey said. “It’s okay he didn’t go there because you’re going to spend the next two or three days trying to rectify the negative media.”

While Biden spent less than a day in Belfast before crossing the border to spend the rest of the week visiting the Republic of Ireland, he left behind his new envoy to Northern Ireland, Joe Kennedy IIIWho will spend the next 10 days making business and political contacts across the UK region.

Kennedy, making his first visit here, chatted and joked with DUP politicians, notably Emma Little-Pengelly, a close Donaldson ally and former special adviser to the party’s previous leaders Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson.

They discuss the tourist highlights of Northern Ireland’s spectacular Giant’s Causeway Coast and the best ice cream parlors in its resort towns. (Kennedy noted Little-Pengeley’s favorite: Morelli’s of Portstewart.)

Kennedy insisted that Biden didn’t need to spend too much time talking to local leaders in Belfast this week – as he took all of them, including Donaldson, as guests at the White House for St. Patrick’s Day.

Kennedy continued, “His own mission is not about the United States government coming to tell the people of Northern Ireland what they need to do.”

“He has a vision of what the future could be,” he said. “We can support them.”

There’s still some distance to go – but this was the first step.