‘Biden was magnificently late for nearly everything’: How US president’s Ireland trip unfolded

US president’s visit is a timely reminder for all on our island that this special relationship and the friendship that flows from it matters

Family values: US president Joe Biden embraces his cousin Laurita Blewitt on the last day of his visit. Photograph: Jim Watson/AFP

The long prelude

“Barack, you have to let the boy go! Let him come home!”

Former taoiseach Enda Kenny used to relate how he implored then US president Obama to let his vice-president visit Ireland. Obama has told the story too. So has Joe Biden, more than once. He told it again at the Dublin Castle banquet on Thursday night. Biden’s Irish anecdotes, in fairness, rarely suffer from being under-utilised. They’re given regular workouts.

And now he’s the president. His obvious decency, empathy and old-school democratic (and Democratic) centrist values were preferred three years ago by middle America to a second term for the grandiose buffoonery and kleptocratic cynicism of Donald Trump. Whether you’d vote for him or not, you couldn’t imagine Biden paying hush money to a porn star. His view in 2016 — and may well still be — was that he had to run because he could beat Trump. He was right. So now, after many repeated invitations to the Oval Office from Irish leaders, and with his first term three-quarters done, Biden treated himself to a four-day hooley in the land of his forefathers.

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There were questions, of course. What is he doing here beyond a trip to see his family roots with a few congratulatory political meetings thrown in? And anyway, hasn’t he been here before? The White House press corps was grumbling a bit. From across the Atlantic, Trump weighed in, warning that there could be a third World War while Sleepy Joe was tootling around the auld sod: “What’s he doing in Ireland?” But Biden was clear on what he was doing: coming home.

The Northern driveby

The Northern Ireland trip should have been a washout. Intended to mark the 25th anniversary of the Belfast Agreement, it was hoped that Biden would deliver an address at Stormont to a revived Assembly and a reconstituted Executive. When the breakthrough in relations between the EU and the UK produced the Windsor Declaration, it seemed the event might be on. But the DUP had other ideas; in truth, Jeffrey Donaldson was never going to jump through hoops with his party in order for Gerry Adams to give Biden a standing ovation.

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Instead, Biden went to the new Ulster University campus in Belfast — a symbol of forward-looking optimism — to deliver a measured and nuanced speech in which he managed to point to a bright future made possible by the proffered settlement, and yet not pressure Donaldson and his party to make the move everyone in Washington, London, Dublin and a goodly chunk of Northern Ireland wants them to. “I hope that the Assembly and the Executive will soon be restored,” he said, but then added: “that’s a judgment for you to make, not me, but I hope it happens.”

A private chat with Donaldson stayed private, but the message — and its accompanying promise of US investment if political stability returns — was clear. It was deft politics.

Coming home

First stop Carlingford and Dundalk — not always on the must-see itineraries of visitors to the country, it’s fair to say — where the driving rain soaked the crowds for hours before Biden’s arrival. He appeared on the ramparts of the castle, himself and a beaming Tánaiste Micheál Martin resplendent in their baseball hats. Martin’s Oval Office audience with Biden last year was cancelled at the last minute when he tested positive for Covid-19; such were the vicissitudes of politics and of life during the pandemic. Perhaps to compensate, Biden called him taoiseach. Then again, he also said he was a “son of Louth”, so, you know, swings and roundabouts.

The gaffes delighted everyone, of course. His distant cousin Rob Kearney (who is almost a full-time Biden cousin) had “beat the hell out of the Black and Tans”, he announced. Though when you think of it, both the Black and Tans and the All-Blacks have a long history of tormenting the Irish before being eventually defeated.

US president Joe Biden's first stop on his visit to Ireland was to the picturesque seaside village of Carlingford, Co Louth. Video: Bryan O'Brien

No visit of a US president is complete without a session in a pub, and this time it was the turn of the Windsor in Dundalk, where Bidens and Finnegans and Kearneys and the rest of them crammed in to have a drink with the president. Twenty-odd years ago, Bertie Ahern brought Bill Clinton to Fagan’s in Drumcondra for a glass of beer; Barack Obama hoovered a pint of Guinness in Ollie Hayes’s Bar in Moneygall in 2011. But Biden is a famous non-drinker; well, nobody’s perfect. Great to be home, everyone said over and over again.

Pomp and circumstance

Tip O’Neill once observed of his great political rival, and friend, Ronald Reagan that he would have made a great constitutional monarch. The imperial trappings of the American presidency — the most powerful position in the world —have long been commented upon, as well as the apparent desire of the American people for a type of royalty as their head of state.

Biden travelled with all the usual security accoutrements — armoured limousines, helicopters, escorts and even a US navy capacity to evacuate him if necessary — and a retinue of about a thousand people, including an estimated 200-300 armed secret service agents.

Anywhere he went was shut down to enable free passage; security anywhere near his personal space was intense. By common agreement, the American security requirements were a pain in the backside for everyone in Dublin. Ironic, given Ireland probably has negligible numbers of people who would wish to harm him. He’s probably safer here than anywhere else in the world.

Joe Biden has become the fourth US president to address the Irish Oireachtas. Video: Oireachtas TV

Scrap Saturday, the famous satirical radio show of the Charles Haughey era, once had Haughey declare: “I love the smell of protocol in the morning!” Well, the smell of protocol was heavy in the air on Thursday morning as President Michael D Higgins prepared to welcome his fellow head of state (The meeting with Leo Varadkar, head of Government, came afterwards; Biden is head of state and head of government).

Despite the fact it was his first public encounter of the day, Biden was nearly an hour late for the Áras; he would continue to be magnificently late for nearly everything throughout the trip. By about 20 minutes into the delay, the ramrod straight guard of honour had begun to sway a little in the breeze. Thank God it was sunny. Eventually, the motorcade pulled in and a beaming Biden emerged.

Sabina looked like she was doing most of the talking, as Michael D tried to manoeuvre her into the correct position for the photograph. But there seemed genuine warmth between the two men, even if — with Biden standing 6ft tall and Michael D not quite — the picture looked a little bit like when he meets the Irish rugby team before the matches at Lansdowne Road.

US president Joe Biden met President Michael D Higgins at Áras an Uachtaráin, where he rang the Peace Bell and planted a tree. Video: Bryan O'Brien

Inside they went to sign the book, then out again for the anthems and the guard of honour, then back in — honestly, it was tiring just watching them — for their private discussions. The lengthy official readout from Áras an Uachtaráin specified that the two men had discussed a variety of issues, including a recent papal bull and the President’s Macnamh series of seminars on the 100th anniversary of the Irish revolution. Though a shorter White House statement made no mention of these absorbing topics.

After a decent interval, the two men and Sabina emerged — the President limping quite noticeably these days and walking with a cane — and made their way through the gardens to plant a tree. Biden handled the spade manfully. And, of course, they rang the peace bell. Ding dong!

There are two ways of looking at all this folderol. Either it’s all faintly ridiculous, or it’s the symbols and architecture through which states express their friendship and common values. Maybe it’s both. Certainly, the genuine welcome that awaited Biden in Leinster House — the atmosphere was so giddy you could nearly float on it — and later in Dublin Castle suggested that the symbolism and ritual signify something deep and meaningful. And on Friday, Mayo awaited.

US President Joe Biden delivered an emotional address in Ballina to thousands of people on the final part of his four-day visit to the island of Ireland. Video: Enda O'Dowd

The ties that bind

So what was it all about? Well, friendship, family ties and shared values, for sure. That much was abundantly clear. But there were also important political themes and messages in the statements and speeches.

Perhaps the bigger message is that all the folksiness and chumminess are not just the mood music that surrounds the important bit — but that these things matter. They’re more than just malarkey, as Biden might say. Yes, they matter in politics and statecraft and in policymaking and all that. There is clear, material, measurable benefit for Ireland in its friendship with the United States. Of course there is. But amity between people, at the very political apex but also very far beyond that, affection, friendship, family ties, shared heritage and values — these things matter in and of themselves also.

Being friends means that you have a friend to call on; but the friendship itself is a good and worthwhile and desirable thing, something to be celebrated for itself. Perhaps in a cynical world, that is an old-fashioned message. But then, Joe Biden, as he would admit himself, is an old-fashioned guy.