Thursday, Dec 07, 2023

Joe Biden's blink and you'll miss it visit to Northern Ireland

Joe Biden's blink and you'll miss it visit to Northern Ireland

For the best part of a year at least, the prospect of this presidential visit has been discussed among diplomats.
Washington's deep pride, seeing itself as a midwife to the 1998 Belfast Good Friday Agreement, ensured this date was pencilled in to the White House diary - and those of British and American diplomats - long ago.

But amid the reminiscing about 1998, the politics of 2023 swirls; stirring a loose idea into an actual visit and then moulding its scale, or lack of it.

The prime minister's diplomatic triumph in re-casting the Brexit deal for Northern Ireland has not - yet at least - delivered its most sought after domestic prize - the restoration of power-sharing devolved government in Belfast, that cornerstone of the peace deal 25 years ago.

The Democratic Unionist Party are not happy with what is known as the Windsor Framework and are not willing to go back to the Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont - and so there can be no moment with a grandiose backdrop and smiles of success.

And so an awkward, if frequent political impasse here hangs over this blink and you'll miss it visit from both the president and prime minister.

Because yes, after months of diplomatic chatter about it, it doesn't actually add up to much.

There has been a smidgen of tension between the White House and Downing Street about the timetabling of the leaders' itineraries which probably hasn't helped.

It would have been odd if President Biden had come here and not been met by the prime minister.

But we won't see very much of them together beyond a handshake at the airport and a meeting on Wednesday morning.

Rishi Sunak won't be at President Biden's speech.

And the president will be in Northern Ireland for only around 15 hours, for around half of which he'll be in bed.

After that, Joe Biden's much talked about Irish heritage will draw him to the Republic.

A mix of family history and made-for-television imagery the year before a presidential election.

As my colleague Sarah Smith writes here, with 30 million Americans claiming Irish roots, the personal and the political will overlap for him rather neatly in the next few days.

For the prime minister, it'll be straight back to London on Wednesday afternoon.

He won't meet Northern Ireland's political parties.

The rationale of those around Mr Sunak is that overt cajoling of the DUP now could prove counter-productive.

No 10 is seeking to emphasise a more prominent role for the prime minister at Good Friday Agreement commemorations here next week.

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