Following President Biden’s address today in Northern Ireland, we examine the highlights of his speech for Northern Ireland.
The President of the United States, Joe Biden, is currently on a four-day trip to Ireland where he will spend time in both Northern Ireland and the Republic. After arriving in Belfast last night, Biden has been at Ulster University today to make a speech to mark the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.
The agreement was signed in 1998 after decades of conflict between the two halves of Ireland which resulted in over 3,500 deaths. The White House hailed the “tremendous progress” that has been made in the region over the past 25 years, however, Biden’s trip does coincide with a new political conflict that is brewing in Northern Ireland. The nation’s government collapsed last when the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) withdrew as part of its protest against post-Brexit trade rules. At Ulster University today, Biden met with Rishi Sunak before delivering a speech in front of all of the major political parties in Northern Ireland.
Times have changed
Biden started off his speech by thanking the leaders in Northern Ireland for the welcome he has received since being in the country. He went on to say how much the country has changed since his last visit in 1991.
Biden said that back then “you couldn’t have a glass building here” in reference to the modern Ulster University campus, due to the troubles in the region throughout the 1990s. However, he acknowledges that times have now changed and said that “dividends of peace are all around us.”
Hailing the Good Friday Agreement
Given the reason for his trip to Northern Ireland, it was expected that the Good Friday Agreement would get a mention in his speech. Speaking about the peace deal, Biden said that reaching an agreement at the time was “not inevitable” due to the destruction that preceded it. He said:
“Thousands of families had been affected by the Troubles – the losses are real and the pain was personal. Every person killed in the Troubles left an empty dining room table.”
Biden went on to pay tribute to the leaders of the time who never gave up in their pursuit of peace, saying that we should “never forget” their determination. He added that “there was no guarantee” that the deal would be a success but that the leaders of the time “kept going because they never stopped believing that success was inevitable.”
The importance of the agreement in the US
The President also touched on the fact that the Good Friday Agreement is important to Americans on both sides of the political spectrum. Speaking directly to the audience members in Ulster, Biden said:
“I want you to know that there is a large population that is invested in what happens here, that cares a great deal about what happens here. Protecting the peace and the Good Friday Agreement is a priority for Democrats and Republicans in the United States – and that is today.
This is something that brings Washington together – it brings America together. Your history is our history, but more importantly, your future is America’s future.”
A plea to the nation’s leaders
Biden also made a point of urging Northern Ireland’s biggest political parties to unite once again so they can return to power-sharing in Stormont. However, he did concede that it was ultimately a decision that the DUP would have to make themselves. The President added:
“As a friend, I hope it’s not too presumptuous for me to say that I believe democratic institutions established through the Good Friday Agreement remain critical to the future of Northern Ireland. I hope the Assembly the Executive will soon be restored.”
The biggest stumbling block for a return to power-sharing in Stormont is the post-Brexit trade deal in Northern Ireland. In a message of support to Rishi Sunak, Biden backed the Prime Minister’s proposed Windsor Framework, saying:
“I know the UK’s departure from the European Union created complex challenges here in Northern Ireland and I encourage the leaders of the UK and the EU to address the issues in a way that serves Northern Ireland’s best interests.
The Windsor Framework addresses the practical realities of Brexit and it’s an essential step to ensuring hard-earned peace and progress. I believe the stability and predictability offered by this framework encourages greater investment in Northern Ireland.”
Although Biden’s trip to Northern Ireland was billed as a visit to commemorate the Good Friday Agreement, he decided to address the elephant in the room and urged the DUP to find an agreement with Sinn Fein.
Unfortunately, it seems that the US President’s words have fallen on deaf ears. After the speech concluded, the leader of the DUP Jeffrey Donaldson said that the speech by Biden had “not changed the political dynamic” in Northern Ireland.