Biden and his entourage emerged showing empathy with the Irish, in part because of the way they behaved and the things they said. But equally, because of the contrast with the mean spirited and self-obsessive adherents of the “Precious Union” in Westminster and beyond.Geoff Bell
By Geoff Bell
Joe Biden has now left Ireland, after apparently trying to linger there as long as possible – especially in the southern part of the island. His visit to the north was only twelve hours. After he left, there was a conference in Belfast hosted by Queens University to discuss the significance and current state of the Good Friday Agreement. Biden was represented by Joe Kennedy III, his economic advisor on Ireland. Bill and Hilary Clinton also attended the conference, as did Tony Blair, Rishi Sunak, Keir Starmer, and European bigwigs. Also there were past and present Irish premiers, and all the current political party leaders in the North of Ireland, apart from the DUP’s leader Jeffrey Donaldson. He described the whole affair as “a bubble”, lacking reality.
And therein is an example of the spoiler to the GFA’s celebrations – the fact that it is not functioning. Despite entreaties from the powerful and famous, the DUP continues its boycott of power-sharing, thereby also saying “no thanks” to offers of significant US investment. Kennedy said any money is dependent on “political stability”, which is something that is clearly not visible and would be unlikely to be even if an unhappy and complaining DUP eventually does return to the Assembly.
Was the whole thing then – the speeches, the anniversary, Biden’s visit itself – a write off? Was it all show and no substance?
Not exactly. First, American involvement is significant, as its engagement in Ireland often has been. As Mary Lou McDonald, the Sinn Féin leader remarked, “There wouldn’t have been a peace process without America”. The most dramatic example of this was in 1994 when Clinton, then President, granted a visa to the Sinn Féin leader, Gerry Adams, to talk at a conference in America. The UK had told Clinton that there would be “hell to pay” if they did this. Clinton ignored this and he later said, “I did believe that by giving Mr Adams this visa… we might have had a constructive role in pushing the peace process”. The Irish ambassador to London observed that the decision was “deeply humiliating” for the British.
A scaled down version of this humiliation was apparent during Biden’s visit. First, when Biden arrived in Belfast, he gave Sunak only a short coffee break for discussion. Biden proceeded to deliver a speech in Belfast, and Sunak was not invited. Then, when Biden addressed the Irish parliament he said, ““I think the United Kingdom should be working closer with the people of Ireland”.
That the USA has often had a more progressive attitude towards Ireland than the British is, of course due to Britain’s’ age-old colonialism in Ireland on the one hand and, on the other, the fact that many Americans trace their roots to the victims of this colonialism.
This is not some sentimental dewy-eyed fact-free nostalgia the British press like to portray Americans of when they discuss Ireland. It is based on the repression and the economic disaster that British rule inflicted on the Irish, especially in the 18th and 19th century. This is part of the memory bank of the descendants of the many Irish people who were forced to leave their country in those times. It is a heritage that shares some commonality with all those whose presence in the US stems from colonial exploitation elsewhere in the word. Moreover, as Biden remarked, it led to many Irish emigrants to America – Protestant and Catholic – playing a significant role in the defeat of British colonialism in America’s own War of Independence.
That such sentiment remain in the US is not surprising. Indeed, how can they not when Britain’s old anti-Irish colonial sentiments continue to be displayed. An example of this was Sunak’s speech at the Belfast conference when he touched on his latest deal with the EU over small changes to the Irish protocol, which he hopes will bring back the DUP to power-sharing. This Windsor Framework was, he said, “the right thing for the union”, thus basing his argument on the preservation of colonialism and showing his partisanship on the issue that has caused all the divisions in Ireland in the first, second and third places. Compare this with Hilary Clinton’s progressive sentiments at the same Belfast conference when she argued for better housing in the North and “shared education” between the two communities.
There are, if course, obvious contradictions in a USA elite appearing as friends of Ireland, when they bring terror, environmental disaster, and many other horrors to elsewhere in the world. Although, it is interesting that one of the foremost critics of Biden’s visit to Ireland was Donald Trump, who said the present President should not have gone to Ireland at all. Well, he should have, and he did. He and his entourage emerged showing empathy with the Irish, in part because of the way they behaved and the things they said. But equally, because of the contrast with the mean spirited and self-obsessive adherents of the “Precious Union” in Westminster and beyond.
- Geoff Bell is a member of Labour for Irish Unity and the author of The Twilight of Unionism: Ulster and the Future of Northern Ireland
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