- Biden says a new Brexit deal could bring “significant investment”.
- We hope that the devolved assembly will be restored soon
- The DUP says the visit will not change its years of boycotts
- The President will travel south to meet distant relatives
BELFAST, April 12 (Reuters) – U.S. President Joe Biden urged Northern Irish political leaders to restore their devolved government as he marked the 25th anniversary of peace in Belfast.
Proud of his Irish heritage, Biden spent half a day in the UK region meeting British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak before heading to the Irish Republic for two and a half days of speeches and meetings. with officials and distant relatives.
The brief Belfast standoff comes amid the latest political deadlock, which has not been met for more than a year over a row over post-Brexit trade arrangements, a key element of the 1998 peace deal.
Noting how the city had changed since he first toured the new University of Ulster campus in Belfast as a young senator, Biden said, “It’s been a long year of work to get to this place.”
“Today’s Belfast is the heartbeat of Northern Ireland and is poised to offer unprecedented economic opportunity. Big American companies looking to invest want to come here.”
The 1998 peace accord was backed by the United States and ended 30 years of bloodshed between mainly Catholic nationalist opponents and mainly Protestant Unionist supporters of British rule. But political progress has lagged behind on how Britain’s exit from the EU affects the border with EU member Ireland.
Mr Biden said devolution was key to Northern Ireland’s future and that an effective devolved government would “have an even bigger opportunity in this region”.
“So I hope that the legislature and the executive will be restored soon. That’s a judgment for you, not me, but I hope it happens,” he told the audience, which included the leaders of Northern Ireland’s five main political parties.
The DUP didn’t budge
Biden said the recent Windsor Framework Agreement between the EU and Britain to ease post-Brexit trade barriers between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom provided stability and predictability to encourage more investment.
That deal has so far failed to end a local legislative boycott of the region’s largest pro-British party, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). Devolution has undergone several breakdowns and suspensions since 1998.
DUP leader Geoffrey Donaldson said Biden’s visit – the first by a US president to the region in 10 years – had not changed the political dynamic around his party’s opposition to trade rules that treat the province differently to the rest of the UK.
The DUP wants further changes to the UK/EU deal and will put proposals to the British government within the next few weeks, Donaldson said. London has already said it cannot renegotiate the deal.
Donaldson, who had a one-on-one meeting with Biden like other local leaders, said he was not in Belfast to intervene, and the president clarified that his speech was “much more balanced than we’ve heard in the past.” .
Current and former DUP colleagues have previously described Biden as “anti-British” and “hating the United Kingdom”, prompting one Whale House official to say the president’s record “shows he is not anti-British”.
But Britain’s exit from the European Union has at times strained relations between Britain and Biden’s White House, as London and Brussels have struggled to find a divorce deal that does not damage the principles of the peace deal.
‘Get your act together’
Sunak said he spoke with Biden on Wednesday about the “incredible economic opportunities” for Northern Ireland, said they hoped devolution could be restored soon, and described the two countries as “very close partners”.
The two met for tea at the Biden Hotel, Belfast, where they were staying for the night.
Former Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, one of the architects of the Good Friday Agreement, said the failure of Northern Ireland’s devolved assembly to facilitate the presidential speech was a “huge pity” and a “huge own goal”.
Biden will address the Irish Parliament on Thursday.
US Special Envoy to Northern Ireland for Economic Affairs Joseph Kennedy III, a member of a storied Irish-American political family, spent several days in Northern Ireland with Biden to meet with business leaders.
Colum Eastwood, leader of the small nationalist SDLP party, said Biden’s message was clear: “Do your part and we’ll help invest.”
Biden was born later on Wednesday in County Louth – midway between Belfast and Dublin – where his grandfather was born. He will meet relatives from the other side of his family in the western county of Mayo on Friday.
Biden’s great-grandfather Owen Finnegan, a shoemaker from County Louth, immigrated to America in 1849. Biden’s family, including his grandfather James Finnegan, followed him in 1850.
By Padraic Halpin; Additional reporting by Conor Humphreys in Belfast, Sachin Ravikumar and Kate Holden in London; Editing by Peter Graf and Alex Richardson
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