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The Independent UK
The Independent UK
Cillian Sherlock

Biden to hold bilateral meeting with Sunak ahead of Ulster University speech

PA Wire

US president Joe Biden will hold a bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in Belfast later during a historic four-day trip to the island of Ireland.

The meeting at the Grand Central Hotel in the region’s capital will be the third in-person meeting between the two leaders.

Their discussions are expected to focus on Northern Ireland, the anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement and the war in Ukraine.

Mr Sunak greeted the US president after Air Force One landed at RAF Aldergrove on Tuesday night ahead of engagements across the week to mark the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, which largely brought an end to the Troubles in Northern Ireland in 1998.

The two leaders met briefly before the president drove away in an armoured car amid a scattering of snow.

Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris was also present as Mr Biden alighted from the aircraft with US Special Envoy for Northern Ireland Joe Kennedy.

In a briefing to journalists, Amanda Sloat, senior director for Europe at the US National Security Council, said it is not anticipated that Mr Biden and Mr Sunak will discuss a free trade agreement.

“I think their conversation is going to focus primarily on the situation in Northern Ireland given that that’s where they’re meeting, as well as the chance to touch base on Ukraine and some other issues,” she said.

Ms Sloat said the two leaders had the opportunity to touch briefly on economic issues when they met in San Diego, a conversation which she said will be “furthered and deepened” when they meet in Washington in June.

“We’re continually looking for ways to engage with the UK on a whole range of economic issues,” she added.

The US President will later meet the leaders of Northern Ireland’s main political parties before he delivers an address at Ulster University’s new £350 million Belfast campus.

The Stormont powersharing Assembly, which was established in the peace deal, is not currently operating due to a protest over post-Brexit trading arrangements by the DUP, the largest unionist party in Northern Ireland.

However, the White House said there will not be a formal group meeting with the leaders.

Ms Sloat was asked what Mr Biden’s strategy will be to encourage the DUP to end its boycott of the Stormont Assembly.

She said the US leader would like to see the devolved institutions back up and running, but really the main focus of his visit is to mark the anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.

“The main message of the President to all parties, to all people of Northern Ireland, is to reaffirm support for the Good Friday Agreement … and the devolved institutions here in Northern Ireland are a fundamental part of the Good Friday Agreement, and so I think the President’s message – as he said on St Patrick’s Day, and I expect he will reaffirm today – is the United States’ strong support for that, the belief that the people of Northern Ireland deserve to have a democratically-elected powersharing representative governance,” she said.

Mr Sunak will not attend Mr Biden’s keynote speech, with Downing Street on Tuesday denying that the engagement between the pair would be “low-key”.

Speaking to reporters before his departure, Mr Biden said that his top priority was to “make sure the Irish accords and the Windsor Agreement stay in place, keep the peace”.

His son Hunter Biden and sister Valerie Biden Owen are accompanying him for the trip.

A major security operation is in place for Mr Biden’s visit, with more than 300 officers from the rest of the UK being drafted into Northern Ireland.

The PSNI has also warned of significant traffic disruption in Belfast during the presidential visit, with a number of roads in the city centre already closed.

Mr Biden will also travel to the Republic of Ireland, where he will carry out a number of engagements during his four-day stay, including a speech in Dublin as well as visits to ancestral homelands.

After he leaves Belfast on Wednesday, Mr Biden will cross the border to attend engagements in Co Louth.

The president has traced his ancestral roots to the area and he will tour Carlingford Castle in the county before spending the night in Dublin.

He is then expected to visit Irish President Michael D Higgins on Thursday.

It has been announced that Dublin’s Phoenix Park will be closed for 24 hours from 5pm on Wednesday to facilitate the visit.

Mr Higgins’ official residence is within the park’s grounds.

The White House said Mr Biden will take part in a tree-planting ceremony and the ringing of the Peace Bell at the President’s official residence, Aras an Uachtarain.

Following that ceremony, he will meet again with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, whom Mr Biden recently hosted for St Patrick’s Day.

Mr Biden will address the Irish parliament and attend a banquet dinner at Dublin Castle on Thursday evening.

The US President’s trip will conclude with a visit to Co Mayo, where he has also connected with distant cousins, on Friday.

He will tour the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Knock and visit the North Mayo Heritage and Genealogical Centre’s family history research unit.

Mr Biden will then make a public speech at St Muredach’s Cathedral in Ballina.

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