Biden’s visit to Ireland aimed at marking Good Friday Agreement but it is also a very personal one

Invitation to come to Ireland as president was issued even before he moved into the White House

Fifth cousin of President Joe Biden, Andrea McKevitt, from the Cooley Peninsula, Co Louth where then Vice-President Biden met locals during his visit in 2016. File photograph: PA

When Air Force One arrives in Belfast on Tuesday, it will mark the beginning of a visit that was first mooted even before Joe Biden was inaugurated as president.

Just days after Biden won the presidential election in November 2020 he had a “warm conversation” with the then taoiseach Micheál Martin.

Martin and Biden had known each other for years and the taoiseach immediately invited him to visit Ireland.

Biden is older than Martin but they share similar life experiences. Both were in politics for years before finally securing the top job. Both also have experienced the heartbreak of losing children.

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After nearly 50 years in public life in the United States, Biden has known generations of Irish politicians. As vice-president for eight years he hosted an annual St Patrick’s Day breakfast at his official residence for visiting taoisigh.

The Covid-19 pandemic prevented Martin as taoiseach from meeting Biden in the White House for the traditional St Patrick’s Day ceremony although they did meet elsewhere including at the funeral of Queen Elizabeth last year and the UN climate change conference in Glasgow.

Biden had indicated for some time that he would like to visit Ireland.

However, the timing remained uncertain as rows over the Northern Ireland protocol and the fallout from Brexit played out.

The 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement was an obvious hook for such a visit.

Illustration: Paul Scott
Illustration: Paul Scott

However, the strained relations between Dublin and London and the tensions over plans by Boris Johnson’s government in Westminster to override unilaterally the Northern Ireland protocol which had been agreed as part of the Brexit deal as well as the lack of a devolved Government at Stormont complicated the issue.

The Biden administration made it very clear it wanted the EU and the UK to reach an agreement on the protocol.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine in February last year raised the stakes. Washington certainly did not want two of its key allies – the EU and the UK – squabbling or, worse, engaging in a trade war while a real war was being waged in Ukraine.

Biden strongly backed the recent Windsor framework. The deal eased tensions between London and Brussels but the problem remained of the frozen political institutions in Northern Ireland with the DUP still refusing to go back to Stormont.

Biden has publicly called for the return of devolved Government and the leaders of the five main political parties in Northern Ireland were invited to the White House last month.

One informed source said the discussions about the president’s visit involved trying to “synchronise” it with efforts to re-enhance relationships between north/south and east/West.

One example is the way the White House is billing the visit. The official White House statement referred to “president Biden’s travels to the United Kingdom and Ireland”.

At a briefing on Wednesday his press secretary said: “He is eager to visit the United Kingdom and Ireland, two nations who we have close ties to.”

Not many in Irish America would refer to a trip to Belfast and Dublin as going to the United Kingdom and Ireland.

Some highly -placed sources suggested that the title of the visit was decided following talks between US/British and Irish sides in a bid to smooth unionist opinion.

Biden for his part wears his Irish heritage very proudly. He refers to his Irish background constantly and about being raised in an Irish Catholic family in Pennsylvania and later Delaware.

At the White House on St Patrick’s Day in his welcome to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar Biden described himself as the “great-great-grandson of the Blewitts of County Mayo and the Finnegans of County Louth, who boarded coffin ships to cross the Atlantic more than 165 years ago”.

He talks about his Irish ancestry as being “part of his soul” and helping him in difficult times.

“During the times of darkness and despair, it always sort of brings light, strength when you think about what my ancestors went through and what we’re going through now, and the history that binds us and the values that unite us”, he said at a Friends of Ireland lunch on Capitol Hill last month.

Varadkar told Biden that Ireland would “roll out the red carpet” when he arrived and that it would be “a visit like no other”. He promised “great crowds” would turn out to see the president.

Biden said on St Patrick’s Day that he would visit Ireland “soon” but no dates were announced. In fact the trip was only confirmed officially by the White House on Wednesday and it did not include a full itinerary.

The White House said the president wanted to “mark the tremendous progress since the signing of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement 25 years ago and underscore the readiness of the United States to support Northern Ireland’s vast economic potential to the benefit of all communities”.

In Dublin, the president and the Taoiseach are also expected to discuss Ukraine as well as EU/Washington relations amid concerns in Europe about US tech subsidies.

But the White House said the visit will also be important to Biden personally.

“He’s looking forward to this. The president is going to be highlighting how his family history is part of that larger shared history between US and Ireland.”

“Waves of Irish immigrants helped shape America’s spirit of freedom and of our drive for independence, which launched an irrevocable friendship between our two countries.”

“That part of the trip, where it connects to his family, is going to be incredibly important to him, but also the broader Irish American community as well, as we talk about immigrants, as we talk about how this country was created”, it said.

Martin Wall

Martin Wall

Martin Wall is the former Washington Correspondent of The Irish Times. He was previously industry correspondent