Joe Biden’s visit to Ireland contained some hard messages for us

Stephen Collins: US president’s only mistake on his nearly note-perfect visit was his perceived snub of Rishi Sunak

Joe Biden managed to walk the political tightrope with a surprising skill during his Irish trip

Now that Joe Biden is safely back in the United States, preparing to announce his intention to run for a second term, it is time to stop obsessing about the insults thrown at him by the right-wing British media.

The warmth and enthusiasm with which ordinary people greeted the US President at every venue in the Republic left no doubt about the wide affection and respect in which he is held, and the pride the vast majority of people have that someone so unabashedly proud of their Irish heritage is president of the United States.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar summed it up when he dubbed Biden “the most Irish of all American presidents, not because of what is written on his family tree but because of what is enshrined in his soul.”

Of course there were some who disagreed with that. The ingrained hostility of some on the left to the United States, and western democracy in general, was exemplified by the boycott by People Before Profit TDs of the president’s address to the Houses of the Oireachtas.


Another undercurrent in the Irish response was the embarrassment of some at Biden’s unashamed Catholicism, a core element of his identity, as it is with many other Irish Americans.

The president is not a conservative Catholic of the old school, and makes a clear distinction between his personal religious beliefs and his duty to legislate for society as a whole. Nonetheless, he is clearly attached to traditional practices passed down through generations of Irish Americans as his private prayers at Knock demonstrated.

Biden has actually earned the hostility of a significant swathe of Catholic opinion in the US, including many Irish Americans, because of his support for abortion rights and marriage equality. His tolerant faith has cost him the support of Catholics who seem to have no problem with the morally reprehensible Donald Trump.

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The other source of embarrassment was the occasional outbreak of sentimentality, reflecting an outdated view of Ireland as a land of shamrocks and shillelaghs, rather than the modern, wealthy country it is. Yet for all that, the old-fashioned American view of Ireland did us little harm by contrast with the allegedly more realistic view of this island favoured by supporters of the Provisional IRA.

Throughout his political life Biden has supported the constructive political approach developed by the Friends of Ireland group in Congress, led by Ted Kennedy and Tip O’Neill, which played such a positive role in the creation of the peace process.

In Belfast, Biden managed to walk the political tightrope with a surprising degree of skill and he left his trademark gaffes for the more relaxed part of his tour south of the Border. His speech at the University of Ulster recognising the contribution of the mainly Presbyterian Ulster Scots to the creation of the United States did a lot to counter the slurs aimed at him by some elements of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).

The considered response of Jeffrey Donaldson was a welcome recognition of Biden’s sincerity. It also demonstrated just what a difficult political position Donaldson is in as he attempts to get some consensus about the Windsor Accord from a party that contains such destructive figures as Sammy Wilson and Ian Paisley junior

The similarly spiteful response of a section of the British media to the Biden visit attracted a lot of notice in this country, but these were the same people who led the charge for Brexit, demonised the European Union and brought the British economy to its knees.

Thankfully the UK appears to have shaken off the shackles of the Tory right that did the country so much harm over the past decade. Rishi Sunak has managed in a very short time to restore some decency and common sense to the country’s politics and is in the process of rebuilding its international reputation.

If Biden made one mistake on his Irish visit, it was the impression, whether justified or not, that he had snubbed Sunak during his time in Belfast. Varadkar, in welcoming the president to Farmleigh, pointedly referred to the fact that he would be working closely with Sunak to try to get the institutions at Stormont working again.

The Irish and British governments have to stick together to have any chance of making the Belfast Agreement work as it should. Ceann Comhairle Sean Ó Fearghail also did his bit for British-Irish relations by giving a warm welcome to British ambassador Paul Johnson to the Dáil chamber for the president’s speech.

Behind all the bonhomie, Biden had some hard messages for this country which didn’t get a lot of attention in the excitement of the visit. “Today Ireland and the United States are standing together to oppose Russia’s brutal war of aggression,” he told the Dáil. Privately, he told the Taoiseach of the need to stand with the US against China’s bid for world domination. Difficult choices in international relations clearly lie ahead.