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Biden heads to Northern Ireland at delicate political juncture

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US President Joe Biden arrives in Belfast late on Tuesday at a delicate political time in Northern Ireland as he helps mark the 25-year anniversary of a peace deal that largely ended 30 years of bloodshed there.

US President Joe Biden. File picture: Reuters, Leah Millis

By Conor Humphries and Amanda Ferguson

BELFAST – US President Joe Biden arrives in Belfast late on Tuesday at a delicate political time in Northern Ireland as he helps mark the 25-year anniversary of a peace deal that largely ended 30 years of bloodshed there.

Biden, known for decades for his pro-Irish views, will need to tread carefully as the largest pro-British unionist party continues to boycott the devolved power-sharing government that was a fundamental part of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

Biden is expected to meet representatives from the five main Northern Irish parties on Wednesday in advance of his speech at Belfast’s Ulster University but was not planning to pressure them, a senior administration official said.

“Twenty five years ago, Northern Ireland’s leaders chose peace. I look forward to marking the anniversary in Belfast, underscoring the US commitment to preserving peace and encouraging prosperity,” Biden said on Twitter.

Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) has said Biden’s visit – the first by a US president in 10 years – will not pressure it to end its protest at post-Brexit trade rules that treat the province differently to the rest of the United Kingdom.

The European Union and UK agreed to ease many of the trade barriers in a recent deal endorsed by Biden. The DUP wants further changes but London has said that is not possible.

Biden clashed with the British government at times during the Brexit talks, drawing a rebuke from DUP lawmakers.

Biden, who will be greeted by British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on his arrival ahead of a meeting between the two on Wednesday, will float the possibility of closer investment ties between the U.S. and Northern Ireland to try to encourage an end to the impasse.

‘WE DO NEED HELP’

However, the latest political stalemate is set to overshadow the visit and the anniversary of the peace deal the US helped broker between Irish nationalists seeking a united Ireland and pro-British unionists wanting to remain part of the UK.

“It might spur things along and maybe things will be taken a bit more seriously,” said Niamh McNutt, a 21-year-old student adviser in Belfast, where security was tight ahead of the visit. “We do need help right now to get things in order and maybe this will give people the push that they need.”

There is still some sporadic violence by small groups opposed to the peace process and police were attacked with petrol bombs at a parade opposing the agreement in Londonderry on Monday.

Britain’s MI5 intelligence agency recently increased the threat level in Northern Ireland from domestic terrorism to “severe” – meaning an attack is highly likely. It has been mostly at that level since its introduction in 2010.

Biden, who speaks proudly of his Irish roots and frequently quotes Irish poets such as Seamus Heaney, will then spend three days in Ireland, where he will address the parliament in Dublin, meet Prime Minister Leo Varadkar and visit his ancestral homes on either coast.

The president will travel to County Louth on Wednesday, where his great-grandfather James Finnegan was born, and end his visit with a public address in the western county of Mayo, where his great-great-grandfather Edward Blewitt grew up.

“Since (John F) Kennedy there hasn’t been as Irish American a president as Joe Biden and we’re really looking forward to welcoming him home,” Varadkar said on Sunday.

– REUTERS

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