BELFAST – President Joe Biden embarked Tuesday on a journey of diplomatic and family celebration, highlighting the U.S. role of 25 years ago in ending deadly bloodshed in Northern Ireland while catching up with distant relatives in the Republic of Ireland. It's his first trip back as America’s president.
Biden arrived in Belfast on Tuesday night and was greeted at the airport by United Kingdom Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. He will spend about half a day in the city on Wednesday, holding talks with Sunak before going to Ulster University to mark the Good Friday accord anniversary.
The president will also “engage” with the leaders of Northern Ireland’s five main political parties but not as a group, the White House said.
Monday marked a quarter-century since the Good Friday Agreement, signed on that day in April 1998, ended decades of violence in Northern Ireland that killed 3,600 people. Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, is observing the milestone anniversary with a reunion of key players in the peace process along with Biden’s visit.
Deep divisions remain over the conflict’s legacy, and U.K. authorities in March raised the terrorism threat level in Northern Ireland to “severe,” warning of IRA dissidents opposed to the peace process and set on attacks. Youths threw gasoline bombs and set a police vehicle on fire during a dissident march in Londonderry on Monday.
Biden said last month that nothing would change his travel plans.
“They can’t keep me out,” he said.
The Democratic president will spend four days on the trip in all, including appearances in Belfast, the capital and largest city in Northern Ireland; in Dublin, the capital of the Republic of Ireland, and in County Louth and County Mayo, on Ireland’s East and West coasts, respectively. He will also address Ireland’s Parliament.
In County Louth the 80-year-old will dive into the Irish ancestry of which he is immensely proud and speaks about often.
Biden will hold separate meetings Thursday in Dublin with Irish President Michael Higgins and Prime Minister Leo Varadkar before the address to Parliament and a dinner banquet. Varadkar visited Biden in the Oval Office last month on St. Patrick’s Day.
The president will spend Friday, the final day of the trip, in County Mayo, exploring family genealogy and giving a speech about ties between the U.S. and Ireland in front of a 19th century cathedral that the White House said was partly built using bricks supplied by his great-great-great-grandfather, Edward Blewitt, a brickmaker and civil engineer.
“The president is very much looking forward to that trip and to celebrating the deep historic ties that our two countries and our two people continue to share,” National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said.
Ending decades of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland, a period referred to as “the Troubles,” meant balancing competing identities in the country, which remained in the United Kingdom when the rest of Ireland won independence a century ago. Irish nationalists in the north — most of them Catholic — seek union with the Republic of Ireland, while largely Protestant unionists want to stay with the U.K.
The Good Friday Agreement, struck on April 10, 1998, after almost two years of U.S.-backed talks, committed armed groups to stop fighting, ended direct British rule and set up a Northern Ireland legislature and government with power shared between unionist and nationalist parties.
But Britain’s exit from the European Union, which left Northern Ireland poised uneasily between the rest of Britain and EU member Ireland, has upset a delicate political balance, including the power-sharing system set up by the peace accord.
The Northern Ireland Assembly has not sat for more than a year, after the main unionist party pulled out of the government to protest new trade rules for Northern Ireland brought in after Brexit.
A more recent accord between the U.K. and the EU, known as the Windsor Framework, addresses some of the issues that arose around commerce and goods sent across the Irish Sea from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. Biden has praised the framework as an important step in maintaining the peace, though Northern Ireland’s political leaders have called for changes.
Asked as he prepared to leave Washington about his priorities for the trip, Biden said, “Make sure the Irish accords and the Windsor agreement stay in place. Keep the peace. That's the main thing.”
Max Bergmann, director of the Europe, Russia and Eurasia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington, said he would expect Biden to use the anniversary to highlight the positive role the U.S. can play in forging peace around the world.
“This is a real success, 25 years later, of U.S. diplomacy, where the U.S. was asked and then played a very critical role in bridging the divide between two of its friends and partners,” Bergmann said in an interview. “I think this is a moment to mark that progress can happen in the world and the United States can play a central role in it.”
Excitement over Biden’s trip has been growing in the town of Ballina, from which one of the president’s great-great-grandfathers left for the United States in 1850.
Buildings are getting fresh coats of paint and American flags are being hung from shopfronts in Ballina, a bustling agricultural town of about 10,000 residents at the mouth of the River Moy in western Ireland. The center of town already has a mural of a beaming Biden, erected in 2020.
Many people from Ballina and the surrounding County Mayo moved to Pennsylvania in the 19th century, and Ballina is twinned with Scranton, Biden’s hometown.
Joe Blewitt, a distant cousin who first met Biden when he visited Ballina as vice president in 2016, told The Associated Press that the U.S. leader pledged to return once he’d won the presidency.
“He said, ‘I’m going to come back into Ballina.’ And sure to God he’s going to come back into Ballina,” Blewitt said. “His Irish roots are really deep in his heart.”
The 43-year-old plumber was among Biden relations invited to the White House for St. Patrick’s Day last month. Blewitt said it was a “surreal” experience; it included a half-hour private meeting with Biden.
Biden, who was accompanied on the trip by his sister Valerie and son Hunter, often peppers his public remarks with sayings from his late mother and father, and he regularly quotes Irish poets, including Seamus Heaney and William Butler Yeats. He recently boasted to White House guests that the mansion was designed and built by an Irish American, James Hoban.
Ireland’s Irish Family History Centre says Biden “is among the most ‘Irish’ of all U.S. Presidents” — 10 of his 16 great-great-grandparents were from the Emerald Isle. All left for the U.S. during the Great Famine of the mid-19th century, which killed an estimated 1 million people.
Lawless reported from Ballina, Ireland.