By Brian Feeney (for Irish News)
Joe Biden’s visit to Belfast, or more accurately, a carefully restricted bit of Belfast, wasn’t the visit he intended or had hoped it to be.
He first mooted a visit to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement when he met Rishi Sunak at the G7 summit in Doha last November. There he pressed Sunak to get the Irish protocol fixed and the GFA up and running.
Sunak could hardly refuse the US president a visit to the north and promised to have the protocol fixed before Biden arrived on the GFA’s anniversary. What he couldn’t promise was to deliver the DUP.
Nevertheless, the visit didn’t have to be blink and you miss it. Some say that was because the DUP didn’t want Biden swanning around Belfast glad-handing crowds, but the reason is simpler than that. Even this rotten British government wouldn’t allow the DUP to dictate their relationship with the US.
The British didn’t want him and they made that obvious. Biden and the Americans knew it, so they deliberately downgraded all contact with Sunak. He wasn’t invited to Biden’s speech at UU and had to devise an ‘alternative engagement’ visiting the severely-injured John Caldwell which didn’t have to coincide with Biden’s speech.
The British didn’t want Biden for the same reason they didn’t want President Clinton in 1995. John Major didn’t want Clinton at all, never mind at Christmas. He didn’t want Clinton to have anything to do with here, which Major regarded as purely a British matter.
He strongly resented Clinton’s crucial intervention in 1994 giving Gerry Adams an entry visa to the US. So furious was Major that he wouldn’t take a phone call from Clinton for a fortnight. Ooh-ee. Scary.
Apart from the sovereignty aspect – the north is London’s business and no one else’s no matter how much of a mess they make of it – the British regarded Clinton as too sympathetic to northern nationalists.
Last week’s fiasco with Biden was an exact repeat of Major-Clinton 1993-96. Biden is regarded as overly sympathetic, biased, to Ireland and the Irish. Whereas of course this execrable British government is rigorously impartial, eh?
The other aspect, sovereignty, is an obsession of current Conservatives. How many times did Sunak repeat UK, part of UK, welcome to UK? He had to reassure the sovereignty fanatics in his party that he would brook no interference in internal, domestic UK affairs. Pathetic.
The result? A wasted opportunity. Unlike Senator George Mitchell, who gave the outstanding speech of this week at Queen’s lambasting the “100 percenters” who can’t compromise (who are they, you don’t wonder), Biden trod on no toes, didn’t interfere, but promised investment and left Joe Kennedy to meet businesses here. It would have been different if Biden had been able to meet more and different people and give a political input.
Instead, he gave Sunak a lesson in froideur. The British claimed Sunak had a bilateral meeting with Biden. Washington said it was only a coffee meeting – ‘a bi-latte’, they joked. The body language was awful. Biden ignored questions and largely ignored Sunak too, who, it’s said, at one point pretended to take a sip of coffee from an empty cup.
The dreadful optics were quickly picked up by journalists. Sky’s Sam Coates, doing a pool interview, was openly sceptical about what Sunak claimed were ‘talks’ he had with Biden. Everyone could see he hadn’t.
If Sunak made a mess of the whole business, his performance was far exceeded by the DUP. They gave Biden their full ‘Millwall’: no one likes us and we don’t care.
They gave the lie to any notion of economic development leading to political stability that the NIO is desperately pushing. Their clear unadulterated message to any would-be US investors is: don’t bother, it makes no difference to us.
Gives added emphasis to Donaldson’s “I could live with 40,000 job losses”.