US President Joe Biden delivered a significant speech on Wednesday in support of the political process, addressed to the North’s young people as much as its deadlocked political leadership.
In one of the main events of his trip to Ireland at the Ulster University in Belfast, Mr Biden told a select audience of his hopes of a return to powersharing in the North. He insisted stable devolved government could bring prosperity to the Six Counties.
The president’s visit comes on the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement that created the powersharing institutions and ended the armed campaign of the Provisional IRA.
Mr Biden’s speech was tactfully worded to appeal to unionists who have largely opposed his visit, including praise for the contribution of Ulster Scots immigrants to the US.
He also praised the recent negotiation of the Windsor Framework on post-Brexit trading arrangements and urged an end to the unionist boycott of the political institutions of the 1998 peace deal.
The DUP is currently blocking the institutions in protest at Brexit trade checks and, more tacitly, in response to the election last May of a Sinn Féin First Minister.
Mr Biden met British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Stormont’s political leaders before making the speech at the universityr’s new campus in Belfast city centre.
“As a friend, I hope it’s not too presumptuous for me to say that I believe the democratic institutions established in the Good Friday Agreement remain critical for the future of Northern Ireland,” the US President said.
“It’s a decision for you to make, not for me to make, but it seems to me they are related.
“An effective devolved government that reflects the people of Northern Ireland and is accountable to them, a government that works to find ways through hard problems together, is going to draw even greater opportunity in this region.
“So I hope the assembly and the executive will soon be restored. That’s a judgment for you to make, not me, but I hope it happens, along with the institutions that facilitate north south and east west relations, all of which are vital pieces of the Good Friday Agreement.
“For in politics, no matter what divides us, if we look hard enough, there are always areas that are going to bring us together if we look hard enough. Standing for peace and rejecting political violence must be one of those things.”
He said a recent gun attack in which a member of the PSNI was injured was “a hard reminder there will always be those who seek to destroy, rather than rebuild”.
“In times when things seem fragile, or easily broken, that is when hope and hard work are needed the most,” he said.
The most significant part of his speech was his clear and heartfelt expression of support for his audience.
“The American people we’re with, are with you every step of the way. It’s real.
“Those of you who’ve been to America know that there is a, there is a large population that is invested in what happens here. It cares a great deal about what happens here.”
Despite the routine political stalemate, Mr Biden praised the Good Friday Agreement which he said had “helped people all around the world to hope for renewal and progress in their own lives”.
He recalled witnessing a “sea change” in 1998.
He added: “It’s hard to communicate just how deeply invested your success, in your success, the people across the United States are and those who have been there know it, you know it.
“You know it, I’m not making this up. This is real, this is, it’s almost people can taste it. The family ties, the pride in those Ulster Scots immigrants, those those Ulster Scots immigrants who helped found and build my country, they run very deep, very deep.”
Mr Biden had been criticised by senior DUP figures, with MP Sammy Wilson claiming the president had a record of being “pro-Republican, anti-Unionist, anti-British” while former first minister Baroness Foster suggested he “hates the UK”.
DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson, who briefly met the President before his speech, described Mr Biden’s remarks as “measured” but insisted they would not alter his position.
“It doesn’t change the political dynamic in Northern Ireland, we know what needs to happen,” said Donaldson, referring to his calls for a new renegotiation of Brexit.
Michelle O’Neill welcomed a renewed commitments from President Biden and the US administration to help attract investment and create jobs in the north.
“I welcome the support and recommitment from Joe Biden today to work with us as we look towards the future with hope, ambition, and opportunity,” she said.
Republicans and socialists in Belfast were also been involve in protests around the city over the US administration’s support for the apartheid policies of the Israeli government and other issues.
Following his address, the US President headed south to Louth where he visited one of his ancestral Irish homelands and spoke at a local pub, where he delivered a so-called ‘Bidenism’ by confusing the All-Blacks rugby team with the Black and Tans, the notorious British paramilitary force which took part in the War of Independence.
Mr Biden’s political engagements continue today [Thursday] in Dublin before he visits relatives in Mayo and delivers a speech in Ballina.