Confirmation that US President Joe Biden is to visit Ireland next week to mark the anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement will bring international attention to the unionist boycott of the political institutions set up under the peace deal.
The White House confirmed the trip on Wednesday, and said it would “mark the tremendous progress” since the agreement was signed 25 years ago.
Mr Biden is to visit Belfast first, before travelling on to Dublin, with visits also planned to ancestral homes in County Louth and County Mayo, where he will deliver a public address in Ballina on Friday evening.
He will also address the 26 County parliament next Thursday, becoming the fourth US president to do so.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar told reporters that relations have never been stronger or closer between Ireland and the US.
He added: “The United States was a steadfast partner throughout the peace process over many decades, and through many administrations, its role was immense and indispensable. The president’s visit will allow us to celebrate and honour that contribution.
“When I met him in the White House on St Patrick’s Day, President Biden made it very clear the way he celebrates all that has been achieved, especially in the period since the Good Friday Agreement.
“Our shared focus should be on the future, not the past. And that’s why there will be an opportunity to look ahead to the next chapter, the next 25 years.”
When asked whether he hoped Biden’s visit would encourage hardline unionists to restore the North’s institutions, Mr Varadkar said “it can only help”.
The DUP is publicly boycotting the Stormont institutions over the implementation of Brexit, while denying the election of Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill as First Minister is also a factor.
A symbolic address by President Biden to the Stormont Assembly will not go ahead as a result of the boycott. Speaking ahead of the anniversary of the 1998 peace deal, former Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams said his party had agreed to attend at Stormont as an “olive branch” to unionists.
Mr Adams told the PA news agency that “it was a conscious decision on our part to go to a place that the unionists were comfortable in.
“It was a conscious decision that we needed a place to moderate our differences. Clearly there had to be changes in symbolism and that process has started. But it was a very conscious olive branch from us to political unionism.”
At the time, Mr Adams was heavily criticised by traditional republicans for abandoning their promise of ‘no return to Stormont’, the building most associated with hostile and discriminatory unionist rule, as an act of collaboration with the enemy.
This week an extreme Brexiteer ironically claimed that unionists returning to Stormont in the wake of Brexit would be like Nazi collaborators under the Vichy regime in wartime France.
But unionists needs to be given space to make up their mind over returning to Stormont now, Mr Adams said.
“I think the unionists have to make up their minds,” he said. “I think we need to give them a wee bit of space to do that.”
But he said it would be a “different matter” if the DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson (pictured, right) decided to continued their boycott.
“If they decide they’re not going to go in, then that’s up to the two governments to come back because we can’t have a return to English rule.
“We have to have a full involvement by the Irish government along with the British government, unfortunately, with them seeking to fill the gap, which plainly would be the responsibility of unionists’ failure to grasp the new dispensation.”