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Biden touts dividends of peace in Belfast, even as tensions persist

<i>Pool</i><br/>Upon arrival in Japan
Upon arrival in Japan

By Kevin Liptak, CNN

When President Joe Biden spoke here Wednesday to mark a quarter-century of the Good Friday Agreement, it wasn’t from the seat of the Northern Ireland Assembly — currently suspended over a Brexit trade dispute — but from a new university campus downtown.

The choice of venue for Biden’s sole public event in Belfast was a symbolic one. While decades of violence between Nationalists and Unionists has been mostly left to another era, the peace is fragile and the politics are broken — making Biden’s speech to students as much about the future of this region as its bloody past.

Biden’s optimistic speech did not paper over tensions that persist 25 years after the Good Friday Agreement was signed. He made a direct call for the parties in Northern Ireland to return to the power-sharing government — between those who want to remain part of the United Kingdom and those who favor a united Ireland — that was a central pillar of the Good Friday Agreement. And he even harkened back to the Capitol insurrection on January 6, 2021, as evidence that democratic institutions require constant maintenance.

“We learn anew with every generation a democracy needs champions,” he said, adding later: “As a friend, I hope it’s not too presumptuous of me to say that I believe democratic institutions established in the Good Friday Agreement remain critical for the future of Northern Ireland.”

“That’s a judgment for you to make, not me,” he said, “but I hope it happens.”

Nearly immediately after the president concluded his speech, a key player in the paralyzed power-sharing government downplayed the impact Biden’s speech might have on the situation.

“It doesn’t change the political dynamic in Northern Ireland,” said Jeffrey Donaldson, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, which withdrew from the government in dispute of Brexit trade rules. “We know what needs to happen.”

Departing Washington on Tuesday, Biden described the goal of his brief 15-hour visit to Northern Ireland bluntly: ensuring the US-brokered accord remains in place.

“Keep the peace, that’s the main thing,” he said before boarding Air Force One. “Keep your fingers crossed.”

Biden’s frank outlook was a reflection of the lingering tensions in this once-restive region.

While Biden was invited to speak from Stormont, the stately parliament building overlooking Belfast, he turned down the offer while the power-sharing arrangement remains mired in dysfunction. The regional government has operated only sporadically since it was formed and hasn’t been in place for more than a year as the main unionist party resists new Brexit-related trade rules.

Both Biden and the British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak had once hoped those differences might be resolved by the time of Biden’s visit this week. But they weren’t, leaving one of the primary ambitions of the Good Friday Agreement unfulfilled at just the moment the accord is being celebrated.

Biden’s aides worked around the disappointment by scheduling his speech at the new campus of Ulster University in Belfast, which cost millions of pounds to construct and can accommodate thousands of students — most of whom were born after the Good Friday Agreement was signed.

“The idea to have a glass building here when I was here in ’91 was highly unlikely,” Biden said as he opened his speech, recalling the violent era before the accord known as The Troubles, when car bombs and assassinations became part of everyday life in Belfast.

“Where barbed wire once sliced up the city, today we find a cathedral of learning, built of glass to let the light shine in and out. It just has a profound impact,” he said. “And for someone who’s come back to see it, you know it’s an incredible testament to the power and the possibilities of peace.”

He cast the 1998 agreement, brokered with heavy involvement from the United States, as a rare glimmer of bipartisanship in Washington.

“Protecting the peace, preserving the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement is a priority for Democrats and Republicans alike in the United States,” he said. “And that is unusual today. Because we’ve been very divided on our parties. This is something that brings Washington together. It brings America together.”

For some students in Biden’s audience, the violence from The Troubles isn’t even a distant memory, since they weren’t around to experience it first-hand. Instead, it is economic opportunity that appears top of mind, particularly as Britain’s exit from the European Union complicates trade relations in the region.

Biden focused in part on the economy in his speech, and has appointed a special envoy to Northern Ireland, former US Rep. Joe Kennedy III, to focus mainly on cultivating foreign investment in the territory. Under a new agreement between the UK and the EU, Northern Ireland will essentially remain part of the EU common market, potentially making it more attractive for businesses.

“Peace and economic opportunity go together,” Biden said during his remarks, predicting scores of American businesses were ready to invest in Northern Ireland.

Ahead of the speech, Biden sat for brief talks over coffee with Sunak, though won’t participate in any major public events with him while he’s here. Biden is also not attending next month’s coronation of King Charles III in London, leading some to identify a generally negative attitude toward the United Kingdom (The White House denies this, and points out no president has ever attended a British monarch’s coronation).

On Wednesday, Biden also met separately with the leaders of the five parties that make up Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government, during which he stressed the importance of resuming the arrangement as part of the Good Friday Agreement’s legacy.

“I’m going to listen,” Biden said when asked about his message for the leaders.

It remains to be seen how successful he will be, however, and some Loyalists have quietly questioned how evenhanded the proudly Irish-American president can be when it comes to matters relating to his beloved ancestral homeland.

That includes the former leader of the Democratic Unionist Party Arlene Foster, who previously served as the first minister of Northern Ireland. She told the local radio earlier that Biden “hates the United Kingdom,” a charge later rejected by senior US officials.

“I think the track record of the president shows that he’s not anti-British,” said Amanda Sloat, the senior director for Europe at the National Security Council. “The president has been very actively engaged throughout his career, dating back to when he was a senator, in the peace process in Northern Ireland.”

Biden himself seemed to make an attempt at rebutting the criticism himself in his speech, referencing not his well-known Irish roots in his speech but his English ancestors.

Biden’s speech was the only public event on his schedule in Belfast before he departed for Dublin in the Republic of Ireland later Wednesday afternoon. The second leg of his trip — with stops in two ancestral hometowns and a visit to the Knock Shrine — promises to be more personal, and less politically fraught, than his brief stop in Belfast.

That begins later Wednesday, when Biden will travel to County Louth in search of his family roots. The region along the border with Northern Ireland was where Biden’s great-great-great-grandfather, Owen Finnegan, was born in 1818.

When he tours the Carlingford Castle, Biden will be able to peer out from its tower to Newry, in the North, where Owen Finnegan set out in 1849 for his journey to the US aboard a ship called the Marchioness of Bute.

This story and headline have been updated with additional details.

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