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Evening Standard
Evening Standard
Nicholas Cecil

Row casts shadow on Joe Biden visit to Belfast

Joe Biden sought to reach out as a “friend” to Unionists in Northern Ireland on Wednesday amid warnings against America intervening in the power sharing row.

The US president was on a brief visit to Belfast with the main focus on marking the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA). He was also due to hold talks with the five main political parties, as well as what was billed as a “bi-latte” coffee meeting with Rishi Sunak.

Amanda Sloat, senior director for Europe on the US National Security Council, said: “The president’s message, I expect he will reaffirm today... is the United States’ strong support for that (the GFA) and belief that the people of Northern Ireland deserve to have democratically-elected, power-sharing representative governance.

“The president comes here very much as a friend, as a supporter of Northern Ireland, and supporter of peace in Northern Ireland, to convey a message of support from the United States for those institutions and for the process here.” However, Ms Sloat stopped short of denying that Mr Biden backed Irish reunification, as suspected by some Unionists. Asked about this, she responded: “The president is a strong supporter of the Good Friday Agreement and the Good Friday Agreement includes mechanisms by which the people of Northern Ireland can make that decision for themselves.”

As he had a cup of tea with Mr Sunak, Mr Biden said he was in Northern Ireland to “listen”.

At the meeting in a Belfast hotel, the US president faced a volley of questions from reporters - including if he had a message for Northern Irish parties and why he was not discussing a trade deal while on his visit to the UK.

But he declined to answer, instead commenting on the "heck of a view" from the upper floors of the Grand Central Hotel.

Later in a speech at Ulster University’s £350 million Belfast campus, Mr Biden was expected to float the prospect of more US investment in Northern Ireland with no “conditions”, such as power sharing being restored.

But in a sign of tensions over his visit, hardline Democratic Unionist MP Sammy Wilson warned the president, who is proud of his Irish heritage, against coming to the province to “lecture” political leaders about democracy.

Accusing Mr Biden of being “extremely partisan”, he told Talk TV: “He would not accept any interference in the affairs of America by outside bodies or outside governments.”

The Stormont power-sharing Assembly, which was established in the peace deal, is not operating due to a DUP protest over post-Brexit trading arrangements.

But Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald stressed that Mr Biden could bring “energy, purpose and urgency” to getting Stormont working again, where her party would hold the top post.

She added: “I hope that we see the DUP rise to the occasion, respond to the moment and above all else respond to the democratic wishes of the people. Things cannot drag on without government for much longer.”

Mr Biden was set to spend only around 17 hours in Belfast, with his meeting with Mr Sunak expected to last around 30 minutes and to cover Ukraine, Brexit, Northern Ireland trade but not a US-UK free trade deal, before heading south. Ms Sloat said the two leaders had the opportunity to touch briefly on economic issues when they met recently 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.

In Dublin, Mr Biden was already being hailed as the “most Irish president since JFK” (John F Kennedy). Irish government minister Neale Richmond told Times Radio: “It’s a big deal for us... an important opportunity to showcase Ireland to the US but also to undermine a really important alliance.

“We hope that President Biden leaves Ireland later in the week knowing that this is a country that is continuing to be a strong ally of the US, a strong economic partner. He’s effectively the most Irish president since JFK.”

He explained the lack of a government in Northern Ireland as being the reason for Mr Biden’s brief stay there.

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

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

Mr Sunak was not due to attend Mr Biden’s keynote university speech, with Downing Street 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”.

The president’s son Hunter Biden and sister Valerie Biden Owen are believed to be accompanying him for the trip, as is US special envoy for Northern Ireland Joe Kennedy.

A massive security operation was in place for Mr Biden’s stay in Belfast, with a heavy police presence on sealed off streets around the president’s hotel and the Ulster campus.

The Police Service of Northern Ireland warned of significant traffic disruption in Belfast during the presidential visit, with a number of roads in the city centre already closed.

Mr Biden was due to travel this afternoon to the Republic of Ireland, where he was carrying out a number of engagements during his four-day stay, including a speech in Dublin as well as visits to ancestral homelands.

First, he will cross the border to attend engagements in County 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 tomorrow. The White House said Mr Biden would take part in a tree-planting ceremony and 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 tomorrow night. The president’s trip will conclude with a visit to County 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.

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