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Everyone knew what Biden’s Irish visit was about apart from the sulking British press

The reception given to the US president provoked a kind of quasi-racist needling in right-leaning UK papers

Joe Biden Ireland visit UK press reaction

The three-day Biden festival was characterised by humour, goodwill, nostalgia, some business on the fringe and a large dollop of knowingness on both sides (the Irish are clued-in about US election schedules). The spitefest in the conservative UK press was startling.

It kicked off with an idiotic London Times cartoon last Thursday by Peter Brookes - Biden as leprechaun, drunk and bearing an unintended likeness to King Charles – followed by a rash of whiny columns. Sample headlines: “All the times President Joe Biden has shown disdain for his UK heritage” (Daily Mail), “Plastic Paddy Joe Biden’s hatred of Britain shames America” (The Spectator), “The bumbling US leader who sticks two fingers up at our country” (Telegraph), all poignantly laced with the insistence, “Britain doesn’t need him” (Telegraph). Special mention for the once venerable Sunday Times for the “hopping around Ireland like a senile, gibbering leprechaun sticking out of his nose, to be sure, to be sure…”.

The overall vibe was of a needy, raging playground bully disdained by the cool kids. It was the kind of monumental sulk that usually stays in social media and for good reason; self-respecting media outlets pay good money to editors for skills like sound judgment, political literacy and big-picture vision.

As a confident nation, we tend to view this kind of quasi-racist needling as we would a toddler tantrum. It’s been coming at us in one form or another since the Brexit merchants realised they’d clean forgotten to factor Northern Ireland into their back-of-the-envelope plan. Same angry, deluded world view; same destructive press distortions; same abusive ad hominem tone.


If that tone still retains the capacity to surprise, it’s only because this latest feat of national self-sabotage by the English strikes us as astoundingly counter-productive. They may well be surprised to hear that Americans – trade negotiators and 81million Biden voters included - can read.

The word sycophantic was thrown around in the Irish media too, mainly to signal the user’s sense of well-informed superiority over other parts of the media and the cheerful masses. Some of it was valid. A few Irish journalists mistook their assignment for a chance to share a (very large) space with a Beyoncé-like celebrity rather than the world’s most significant political figure, a point duly noted by more serious colleagues.

So why was the Irish media not doing their job and busily interrogating the US president about deeply important geopolitical concerns, as suggested by letter-writers and others?

Miriam Lord’s report from rain-sodden Carlingford explained how frozen, half-drowned Irish journalists were confined for hours against a wall below the viewing platform, “like mountain sheep sheltering from a storm”. Only the American press – as decreed by the visiting American White House team – were allowed near Biden.

Ghastly conditions are routinely endured by journalists on the off-chance that people of interest might give an impromptu press conference or blurt something of note. Lord was not complaining, merely explaining.

What would the critics-turned-journalist have done? They would of course have barged through the squads of dead-eyed, itchy-fingered secret service agents to buttonhole the president with a slew of sharp questions (as suggested by various correspondents) such as his support for the 20-year-old Iraq war or the US-driven incarceration of Julian Assange.

To what purpose? The same questions have been asked thousands of times by reputable reporters and the answers are easily accessed. It’s 18 years since Biden finally acknowledged that his Iraq vote was a “mistake”. Assange is still in a British prison. Meanwhile, the US media pool had its own topical agenda, mainly shouted questions related to the Pentagon leaks, with Biden’s evasive answer duly reported.

What is worth noting is the very few political boycotts and small protests triggered by the visit. None bore comparison to the eggs hurled at president Richard Nixon by Vietnam War protestors in 1970, or the thousands that protested about Ronald Reagan’s disastrous Central America/Iran-Contra adventures in 1984, or the many against the Iraq War during George W Bush’s visit in 2004 (all Republicans notably).

Then again, the Irish always favoured Democrat presidents, say the sage ones accusingly. Six have been elected since the 1960s, starting with John F Kennedy - assassinated after fewer than three years in office, succeeded by his vice-president Lydon B Johnson, then by Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and Joe Biden.

The six Republicans in between included Nixon - forced to resign in disgrace -, who was succeeded by his vice-president Gerald Ford, followed by Ronald Reagan, George H Bush, his son George W Bush and Donald Trump, currently under criminal indictment.

The members of neither camp can claim a flawless characters (apart possibly from Carter) but it’s worth noting that six weeks before Trump’s election in 2016, Irish voters were 82 per cent in favour of Hillary Clinton becoming the next president.

Monday’s poignant gathering in Belfast was a reminder of why. It included the extraordinary (former Democrat Senate majority leader) George Mitchell, now almost 90, suffering from cancer and making his first public address in several years, and Clinton, the first sitting US president to visit Northern Ireland and who appointed Mitchell to chair the Good Friday talks.

If we favour one side, misty-eyed sentiment is only a part of it.