Biden under political fire in restive N Ireland


US President Joe Biden urged political compromise in Northern Ireland on Wednesday, using a brief visit to promote the benefits of enduring peace and investment, but faced heated criticism from pro-UK hardliners.

“I hope the (Northern Ireland) Executive and Assembly will soon be restored,” Biden said in a speech at Ulster University, urging feuding political leaders to restore power-sharing government which has been suspended since February last year.

Biden touted the “unlimited possibilities” for investment and growth offered in the UK-ruled territory, 25 years on from a historic peace deal brokered by the US government.

But peace and stability must always be guarded, he added, saying the January 6, 2021, riot at Congress in Washington had proved that in every generation, “democracy needs champions”.

The Irish-American president met Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who declared the UK’s relationship with the US was “in great shape”. Biden also greeted local political leaders ahead of his speech.

He said Tuesday that the priority for his trip — which includes three days in his ancestral homeland, the Republic of Ireland — was “to keep the peace” in Northern Ireland.

But senior figures in the pro-UK Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which is under pressure to resume local power-sharing, were strikingly undiplomatic about the president.

Sammy Wilson, a DUP member of the UK parliament in Westminster, branded Biden “anti-British”, accusing America’s second Catholic president of having “made his antipathy towards Protestants in particular very well known”.

Another DUP lawmaker, Nigel Dodds, suggested any mediation efforts would prove futile.

“Pressure from an American administration which is so transparently pro-nationalist constitutes no pressure on us at all,” he told the Daily Telegraph newspaper. 

Devolved government in Belfast is a key plank of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, but it collapsed 14 months ago over the DUP’s opposition to post-Brexit trade arrangements in Northern Ireland.

Despite Britain and the European Union agreeing to overhaul them earlier this year, the party is yet to back the new trading terms and allow the restoration of Belfast’s Stormont legislature.

Nonetheless, Biden’s visit marked the “tremendous progress” since the accords largely ended armed conflict between pro-Irish and pro-British militants in April 1998, the White House said.

Biden’s defenders note that his delegation includes Joe Kennedy III, a scion of the Irish-American Kennedy clan, who was appointed special envoy for economic affairs in Northern Ireland. He will remain in Belfast for several days.

“I think the track record of the president shows that he’s not anti-British,” Amanda Sloat, National Security Council Senior Director for Europe, told reporters Wednesday.

“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.”

Less than 24 hours after arriving in Northern Ireland, Biden was heading on to Ireland, which he says is “part of my soul”, paying visits to the hometowns of his 19th-century ancestors. 

Sectarian violence remains a concern north of the border, with Britain’s MI5 security agency elevating its terrorism threat level for the territory ahead of Biden’s visit.

On Monday, masked youths pelted police vehicles with petrol bombs during an illegal march by hardline nationalists in Londonderry, which is also known as Derry.

Police in Northern Ireland on Tuesday said that four suspected pipe bombs had been retrieved from a cemetery in the Creggan area of the city.

“All of these devices were located in the same area where clothes worn by participants in (Monday’s) unnotified Easter parade were removed under the cover of umbrellas and burnt,” officers said.

Biden brushed off any security concerns and saw up close how much redevelopment has transformed Belfast since 1998.

The five-star hotel in Belfast where he stayed only opened in 2018.

Before 1998, the only place for visiting dignitaries to stay was the nearby Europa, which was attacked so often by the Irish Republican Army paramilitary group that it became known as the most bombed hotel in Europe.

Deirdre Heenan, professor of social policy at Ulster University, told AFP that DUP hardliners were “uncomfortable with how he (Biden) wears his Irishness on his sleeve”.

But she added: “We cannot afford to turn our back on such an engaged advocate for a small place, and one who has just appointed an economic envoy.”

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