President Biden addressing the Joint Sitting of the Houses of the Oireachtas. President Biden addressing the Joint Sitting of the Houses of the Oireachtas. Source: Houses of Oireachtas - Flickr / cropped from original / shared under license CC BY 2.0

The US President’s visit to Ireland was the occasion for an outpouring of Unionist bile, with the British government clearly offending the Americans, argues Chris Bambery

There was something very strange about US President Joe Biden’s fleeting visit to Northern Ireland this week to mark the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA), which ended the Troubles in Ireland. As was widely pointed out, he was there for just half a day, discounting the time he was asleep after his trans-Atlantic flight. 

He met very few people and spent little time with political leaders. His meeting with Rishi Sunak was over a cup of tea in Belfast’s Grand Central Hotel, with Sunak showing Biden the view over Belfast, something on which he must be a great expert. The rest of the four-day visit was in the Irish Republic, where he met the Irish President and Prime Minister, as well as local people in Counties Louth and Meath where he has family roots. 

Held at arm’s length

It’s strange that a US President would visit a part of the United Kingdom in such a cursory way. British leaders are usually desperate to parade their supposed ‘special relationship’ with the White House. Veteran Belfast journalist, Eamonn Mallie tweeted:

‘… a postage stamp would be too big for Mr Biden’s Belfast itinerary. Downing Street has some explaining to do. “Dropping in here” is risible given the scale and scope of the President’s trip to ROI [Republic of Ireland]. I doubt if this is what Washington wanted.’

Máirtín Ó Muilleoir (a former Sinn Féin candidate) now the publisher of the Belfast Media Group titles and of the Irish Echo in America, reported:

‘“The British are treating the visit of the most powerful politician on earth like a hot potato,” said one source close to Stormont Castle, home to the North’s most senior civil servants. “I can’t think of any other area on the planet where they would encourage the US President to get off the premises in less than 24 hours. It’s like a game of pass the parcel. They are going through the motions in regard to the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement but they see President Biden as much too sympathetic to the majority here who wish to see those very same Good Friday Agreement institutions revived. Their attitude is partly informed by their animus towards the most Irish American President since JFK but it’s also part of their coddling of the DUP [Democratic Unionist Party] who view Biden in a dimmer light than the Pope.”’

Ó Muilleoir’s remarks echo what many were saying. The British government did not want Biden involved in negotiations, particularly over getting the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly actually to meet. The DUP have been blocking this happening since they were overtaken by Sinn Féin as the biggest party in the Northern Ireland elections last May. They do not want Michelle O’Neill becoming First Minister, as she should under the terms of the GFA, which stipulates that the post goes to the candidate of the largest party.

The White House wanted a longer visit with Biden taking part in negotiations over this. Downing Street did not want that to happen, and thus the flying visit: ‘move on there’s nothing to see here!’ That Biden was not welcomed by Unionists was made abundantly clear. On social media, an image circulated of a banner over a railway bridge at Mullaghglass, near Newry, reading: ‘Go Home Provo Joe’. It’s an area where loyalist flags are regularly displayed, including those of the Ulster Volunteer Force.

Unionist vitriol

Unionist politicians competed as to who could attack Biden with the most virulence. The Traditional Unionist Voice MLA (Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly) said he was ‘anti-British and anti-unionist’. He claimed Biden was ‘irredeemably partisan’. The TUV is a right-wing breakaway from the DUP. DUP MP, Sammy Wilson tweeted that Biden was ‘anti-British’. Former DUP leader, Arlene Foster claimed Biden ‘hates the United Kingdom’, going on to assure party supporters that the visit ‘won’t put any pressure’ on the party to restore Stormont, because he is regarded as ‘simply pro-republican and pro-nationalist’.

An Ulster Unionist MLA, Tom Elliott, responded to Biden mistakenly calling the New Zealand All Black rugby team the Black and Tans (the British terror squad which operated during the Irish War of Independence 1919-21) by saying: ‘Comments like that demonstrate that he has a deep-rooted Irishness and that he is on the side of the nationalist community.’

The British media would normally take the knee in reaction to the visit of a US President, but on this occasion that wasn’t the response of pro-Tory sections. The Times ran a cartoon of Biden dressed as a leprechaun, dancing a jig while holding a pint of Guinness (while visiting a pub in Carlingford in the Republic, Biden joked that he was an unusual Irish person because he didn’t drink). It mirrored nineteenth-century cartoons in Punch showing Irishmen as violent apes.

The Telegraph columnist, Nile Gardiner, a former aide to Margaret Thatcher, claimed Biden’s ‘insulting decision to prioritise Ireland over the UK on his visit to mark the anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement should have come as no surprise.’ Adding that he had ‘gravely insulted Britain’, Gardiner described Mr Biden’s approach towards Britain, which he labelled ‘traditionally America’s closest friend and ally’, as ‘sneering, arrogant and disrespectful’. Commenting on Biden’s decision not to attend King Charles’s coronation, he said that he was putting ‘two fingers up to the monarchy, Great Britain and its illustrious history’ and that ‘he is no friend of the British people’.

Two facts seemed to escape Gardiner: 1) the British government was responsible for Biden’s agenda on his visit to Northern Ireland not the White House, 2) No US President has ever attended a coronation. Repeating this theme, GB News’ Dan Wootton described Biden as an ‘anti-British President’ and said he has a ‘deep hatred of the United Kingdom’.

No wonder the Irish Republic’s Independent described the British media’s reporting of the visit as ‘sneering, arrogant and disrespectful’. Now you do not need to drop criticism of Biden and the US given its record globally, but all of this suggests Unionists and sections of the Tory media are struggling with reality.

Are they seriously suggesting Biden is a closet supporter of Irish Republicanism? Yes, they are. In fact within the US, there was never a strong Irish American lobby supporting the IRA while it waged its armed struggle. Politicians like Ted Kennedy generally followed the line of the Dublin government, which was determined to supress and silence Republicans.

Sour relations

The US Democrat, President Bill Clinton did play a key role in brokering an IRA ceasefire and the signing of the GFA, and Irish Americans broadly welcomed this, including US Senator Joe Biden. The Democrats are proud of this achievement, but the US is also a guarantor of the Agreement under international law. They looked on with grave concern over Boris Johnson and Liz Truss appeasing the DUP over the Northern Ireland Protocol after Brexit, risking the creation of a hard border between north and south. They welcomed Rishi Sunak reaching agreement over this with the European Union and the Dublin government in the recent Windsor Agreement.

The DUP are divided over this. People like Sammy Wilson and Ian Paisley Junior want to reject it and have said so openly. So do Loyalist paramilitaries. The DUP leader, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson MP, is widely believed to be prepared to accept it, and seems to be playing for time before a decision is made. He was more welcoming of Biden’s visit, to a degree.

So as Biden flies home, he will not be best pleased with Sunak and the British government, and his aides were clearly annoyed by both Unionist comments and British media coverage. Strange all in all. But it won’t stop Britain yapping at Biden’s heels as they march to war in the South China Sea or throw weapons at Ukraine.

Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.

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