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Biden visits Northern Ireland as political tensions persist


U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks on his economic priorities at a Laborers’ International Union of North America (LiUNA) training center in DeForest, Wisconsin, U.S. February 8, 2023. 

Jonathan Ernst | Reuters

U.S. President Joe Biden concluded his brief visit to Northern Ireland on Wednesday to mark the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement — a landmark peace deal that effectively ended decades of sectarian conflict.

Biden was greeted off the plane on Tuesday evening by British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to begin a four-day visit to the island of Ireland.

In a Wednesday speech at Ulster University in Northern Ireland, he urged Northern Irish political leaders to restore their power-sharing agreement in order to seize the economic opportunities available via potential U.S. corporate investment in the region.

A British government readout of the meetings between Biden and Sunak on Wednesday stated that the two leaders “both expressed their sincere hope that the institutions in Northern Ireland will be restored as soon as possible.”

“The Prime Minister thanked President Biden for the role the U.S. people and businesses have played in Northern Ireland’s prosperity,” it added.

Biden will now travel south of the border to the Republic of Ireland, where he will remain until Friday to deliver speeches, conduct meetings with officials and visit distant relatives.

Stalemate in Stormont

The president’s visit to Belfast came against a febrile political backdrop. The Northern Ireland Assembly, the devolved legislature established as part of the Good Friday Agreement, has been suspended since February 2022, as unionist parties refuse to take their seats in protest over the Northern Ireland Protocol.

A key tenet of the post-Brexit Withdrawal Agreement signed between the U.K. and the European Union during former Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s tenure, the Protocol effectively established a trade border in the Irish Sea between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland is part of the U.K. while the Republic of Ireland is a separate nation state that remains part of the EU. The Good Friday Agreement established a power-sharing devolved administration in Northern Ireland that ended three decades of violence between largely Catholic Irish republicans, who seek a united Ireland, and predominantly Protestant pro-British unionists who wish to remain part of the U.K.

DERRY/LONDONDERRY, Northern Ireland – April 10,2023: Derry is host to annual parades by dissident republican groups that mark the anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising, the armed insurrection against British rule in Ireland that catalysed the creation of an independent state of Ireland.

Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

Sunak and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen recently signed the Windsor Framework, a renegotiated deal that sets out to address the problems with the Protocol. But the prominent pro-Brexit Democratic Unionist Party rejected the proposals and has yet to return to the Assembly in Stormont.

Theresa Villiers, former U.K. Secretary of State for Northern Ireland between 2012 and 2016, told CNBC on Tuesday that further changes would be necessary to the Windsor Framework.

“Whilst it’s positive in many ways — particularly on movement of food and medicines between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, it really removes a lot of the frictions — it doesn’t deal with all the problems of the Northern Ireland protocol, so I’m afraid it’s unfinished business,” Villiers told CNBC’s Tania Bryer.

“Continuing negotiations with the EU to resolve those issues is the best way to bring the unionists back into government and to get those Good Friday Agreement institutions up and running again.”

Unrest

Unionist dissatisfaction with the Northern Ireland Protocol has led to riots in recent years, but political unrest continues to emerge on both sides of the traditional divide.

Annual parades held over the weekend by dissident Irish republican groups in the border city of Derry — a long-standing focal point for sectarian violence — also resulted in police vans being petrol bombed.

The parades were held to mark the anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising — the armed rebellion against British rule in Ireland that paved the way for the establishment of Irish independence.

DERRY/LONDONDERRY, Northern Ireland, U.K. – April 10, 2023: Dissident republican youths create a road block following an illegal Dissident march in the Creggan area of Derry.

Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

Portions of the dissident republican movement reject the Good Friday Agreement and its compromises to this day, though many of the current rioters were born after the deal was signed.

Villiers noted that the weekend riots appeared to be “pre-planned” and geared towards “optics” and “attention,” while the vast majority of the Northern Irish population is committed to a peaceful and democratic future.

Fringe dissident groups have increasingly drawn disaffected young people towards militant causes in recent years — a development that has raised concerns among politicians and public bodies.

The flare up highlights the simmering generational resentments that can still be inflamed in Northern Ireland, particularly during the April to July period, when politically charged marches are held by both nationalist and unionist communities.

Political impasse focused on Brussels, not Washington

The Good Friday Agreement was signed on April 10, 1998, by British Prime Minister Tony Blair and then-Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Bertie Ahern, after 71% of voters in the North and 94% of those in the Republic approved the proposals and compromises borne out from years of painstaking negotiations.

The Agreement ended three decades of sectarian violence known as the Troubles, which claimed more than 3,000 lives. It brought nationalist and unionist parties together in Stormont, near Belfast, to share power through the devolved government.

DERRY/LONDONDERRY, Northern Ireland – April 10, 2023: A Police vehicle is attacked with petrol bombs during an illegal Dissident march in the Creggan area.

Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton is perceived to have played an instrumental role during the Northern Irish peace process, with the Good Friday Agreement cited as one of his administration’s major foreign policy successes. Clinton became the first sitting U.S. President to visit Northern Ireland and the first to appoint a U.S. special regional envoy. Since then, both George W. Bush and Barack Obama have visited, while Clinton was awarded the Freedom of the City of Belfast in 2018.

Speaking to reporters before departing for Belfast on Tuesday, Biden said that his top priority was to “make sure the Irish accords and Windsor agreements stay in place” and to “keep the peace.”

The Biden administration has long been keen to highlight both the president’s Irish roots and the historic ties between the island and large swathes of the American population. However, the influence of Irish-American culture has often led to skepticism from unionists in Belfast who perceive Washington as susceptible to nationalist influence.

Though Biden used the trip to promote a return to functioning government in Stormont, his previous support for the Northern Ireland Protocol and current support for the Windsor Framework has drawn criticism from DUP politicians.

DUP Leader Jeffrey Donaldson reportedly told journalists following a meeting with Biden on Wednesday that the president’s visit “doesn’t change the political dynamic in Northern ireland,” adding “we know what needs to happen.”

Donaldson called on the British government to further protect Northern Ireland’s place and trade access within the U.K. in order to restore order to the region’s political institutions.

BELFAST, Northern Ireland – April 10, 2018: Former Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and former US President Bill Clinton at an event to mark the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.

Brian Lawless/PA Images via Getty Images

“Of course Bill Clinton was, I think, a really positive influence on the peace process that led to the Good Friday Agreement, but ultimately, President Biden’s presence won’t alter those fundamentals that we’ve been talking about. Those blockages on the devolved institutions relate more to Brussels than they do to Washington, unfortunately,” Villiers said on Tuesday.

“One of the advantages of President Biden’s visit is to highlight what a fantastic place Northern Ireland is not just to live but to run a business and to invest in, and there’s been a tremendous success story with many big U.S. companies with large operations in Northern Ireland. I hope that’s going to go from strength to strength in the future,” Villiers said.

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