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, the United States, on February 8, 2023.
Jonathan Ernest | Reuters
US President Joe Biden arrives in Northern Ireland on Tuesday to mark the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement – a landmark peace accord that effectively ended decades of sectarian conflict.
Biden is welcomed off the plane by British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on Tuesday night to begin a four-day visit to the island of Ireland. He is due to deliver a speech in Northern Ireland on Wednesday before traveling south of the border to the Republic of Ireland, where he will remain until Friday.
The President’s visit comes against a feverish political backdrop. The Northern Ireland Assembly, the devolved legislature set up under the Good Friday Agreement, has been suspended since February 2022 as union parties refuse to take their seats in protest at the Northern Ireland Protocol.
A key tenet of the post-Brexit Withdrawal Agreement signed between the United Kingdom and the European Union during the tenure of former Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the protocol effectively established a trade border in the Irish Sea between Britain and Northern Ireland.
Northern Ireland is part of the UK while the Republic of Ireland is a separate nation state that remains part of the EU. The Good Friday Agreement created a decentralized power-sharing administration in Northern Ireland, ending three decades of violence between largely Catholic Irish republicans wanting a united Ireland and predominantly Protestant pro-British trade unionists wanting to remain part of the UK
DERRY/LONDONDERRY, NORTHERN IRELAND – 10 April 2023: Derry hosts annual parades by dissident republican groups marking the anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising, the armed uprising against British rule in Ireland which 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 agreement designed to address issues with the protocol. But the prominent pro-Brexit Democratic Unionist Party rejected the proposals and has yet to return to the Stormont gathering.
Theresa Villiers, former British Foreign Secretary for Northern Ireland between 2012 and 2016, told CNBC on Tuesday that further changes to the Windsor Framework were needed.
“While it’s positive in many ways – particularly when it comes to transporting food and medicine between the UK and Northern Ireland, it really removes a lot of the friction – but it doesn’t address all the problems of the Northern Ireland Protocol so I feel I’m afraid it’s an unfinished business.” Villiers told CNBC’s Tania Bryer.
“Continuing negotiations with the EU to resolve these issues is the best way to bring unionists back into government and get the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement working again.”
Unionist dissatisfaction with the Northern Ireland Protocol has sparked unrest in recent years, but political unrest continues to erupt on both sides of the traditional divide.
Annual parades held over the weekend by dissident Irish Republican groups in the border town of Derry – long a flashpoint for sectarian violence – also resulted in police cars being bombed with petrol.
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 Irish independence.
DERRY/LONDONDERRY, NORTHERN IRELAND, UK – April 10, 2023: Dissident Republican youth set up a roadblock following an illegal dissident march in the Creggan area of Derry.
Charles McQuillan/Getty Images
Sections of the dissident Republican movement remain opposed to the Good Friday Agreement and its compromises to this day, although many of the current rioters were born after the agreement was signed.
Villiers noted that the riots over the weekend appeared to be “pre-planned” and aimed at “appears” and “attention”, while the vast majority of Northern Ireland’s population is committed to a peaceful and democratic future.
Fringe dissident groups have increasingly attracted disaffected young people to militant causes in recent years – a development of concern to politicians and public institutions.
The flare-up underscores the simmering generational resentments that can still be ignited in Northern Ireland, particularly during the April-July period when both nationalist and unionist communities hold politically charged demonstrations.
The political impasse was centered in Brussels, not Washington
The Good Friday Agreement was signed by British Prime Minister Tony Blair and then Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Bertie Ahern on 10 April 1998 after 71% of Northern voters and 94% of Republic voters approved the proposals, the compromises resulting from years of arduous negotiations .
The accord ended three decades of sectarian violence known as the Troubles, which claimed more than 3,000 lives. It brought together nationalist and unionist parties in Stormont, near Belfast, to share power through 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 US President Bill Clinton is credited with playing a key role in the Northern Ireland peace process, with the Good Friday Agreement cited as one of his government’s greatest foreign policy achievements. Clinton was the first sitting US President to visit Northern Ireland and the first to appoint a US special envoy to the region. Since then, both George W. Bush and Barack Obama have visited the city, while Clinton was bestowed the city of Belfast’s freedom in 2018.
The Biden administration has long sought to highlight both the president’s Irish roots and the historical ties between the island and large swathes of the American population. However, the influence of Irish-American culture has often prompted skepticism from unionists in Belfast, who view Washington as vulnerable to nationalist influence.
Although Biden is expected to use the trip to encourage a return to a functioning government in Stormont, his previous support for the Northern Ireland Protocol has drawn criticism from DUP politicians.
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 marking the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.
Brian Lawless/PA Images via Getty Images
“Of course, I think Bill Clinton was a really positive influence on the peace process that led to the Good Friday Agreement, but ultimately President Biden’s presence isn’t going to change the fundamentals that we talked about. Unfortunately, these deadlocks on the decentralized institutions relate more to Brussels than to Washington,” Villiers said on Tuesday.
Sunak hopes the President’s visit will help promote the Windsor Framework, an achievement the ruling Conservative Party plans to tout in next year’s UK general election. The Prime Minister will also hold an investment conference in Belfast in September.
“One of the benefits of President Biden’s visit is to highlight what an amazing place Northern Ireland is not just to live in but to do business and invest in and there has been a tremendous track record of many big US companies with big Offices in Northern Ireland. I hope that will only get stronger in the future,” said Villiers.