Tactful Biden targeted by both sides over post-Brexit North

America Letter: Despite US affection for Ireland, Britain remains close partner

As evening began to fall at the White House on Wednesday, and all official engagements had wrapped up for the day in Dublin, there was one more item on President Joe Biden's agenda.

The president took part in a "St Patrick's Day Community Event" live from the White House. Though the Zoom event had been organised relatively late by the administration, more than 1,000 people joined the call from across Ireland, Northern Ireland and America.

A relaxed Biden looked at ease as the event got under way, chatting to staff as technical difficulties were smoothed out. “Am I unmuted?” he said, flashing a smile. “Well, there have been a lot of people in my life tried to put me on mute. Now they’re able to do it!”

The event was in part a replacement for the lavish St Patrick’s Day party that the White House usually throws for hundreds of guests. As is the case with the virtual gatherings that have replaced live events in these pandemic times, the new format in some ways enhanced the experience.

Biden spoke candidly, welcoming people he recognised as their smiling faces popped up on the screen, many of them forgetting to mute, injecting a sense of giddy chaos to the event.

Biden described with a laugh how Micheál Martin had told him “that my win for the presidency was more popular in Ireland than it was in the United States”. He recalled that The Irish Times had written about his genealogy when he visited Ireland. He also drew on Irish sayings he had absorbed since a boy – “may the hinges of our friendship never go rusty” and “may your home always be too small to hold your friends”.

‘English blood’

In a reminder of the informal nature of the forum, he strayed dangerously close to sensitive ground at one point, describing jokingly how he was often told by his mother’s family: “It’s not your father’s fault that he has English blood.”

His sister Val had advised him to stop telling the story, he said, questioning its veracity, and warning that “the press is going to jump all over you!” In fact, Biden told the crowd with a smile, he was proved correct when he found poems by his great-grandfather Blewitt with more than a hint of anti-British sentiment.

It was a somewhat different Biden than was on show for the cameras earlier that day in the Oval Office. Though the warmth was still evident, the US president was careful in his statements as he hosted the Taoiseach. Unlike his predecessor, Donald Trump, who found it hard to resist the sight of a microphone, Biden smiled impassively as the small group of journalists shouted questions – disciplined by decades of experience at the top of politics.

His public comments to the Taoiseach were warm but tactful. Like President Barack Obama, he said, we "strongly support" the Belfast Agreement. But messaging from senior administration officials ahead of the meeting said that the US did not wish to take sides in the increasingly tense standoff over post-Brexit arrangements in Northern Ireland.

Belfast Agreement

Irish officials point to the language that was agreed in the joint statement issued by the Taoiseach and US president after the meeting which affirms the Biden administration’s commitment to protecting the Belfast Agreement. Both leaders called for “the good faith implementation of international agreements designed to address the unique circumstances on the island of Ireland” – a comment widely seen as a warning to Britain over its move to delay the imposition of customs checks in breach of the Northern Ireland protocol.

But it seems that, for now, the president is unlikely to reiterate publicly his statement during the presidential campaign when he pointedly followed up comments by House speaker Nancy Pelosi by tweeting: "Any trade deal between the US and UK must be contingent upon respect for the agreement and preventing the return of a hard border. Period."

Though Biden is well-versed in Irish affairs and was a founding member of the Friends of Ireland caucus, Britain remains a close partner of the US, particularly in the field of defence. British officials have stepped up their engagement in Washington in the past week amid a belief in London that they were losing the Northern Ireland PR battle on Capitol Hill.

Brexit negotiator David Frost and Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis briefed the ad hoc committee to protect the Belfast Agreement this week while Lewis also spoke with congressman Richard Neal. Whether the UK's outreach will be enough to counter Irish influence in Washington remains to be seen.