Home Featured Why Biden’s return to Ireland, his ancestral homeland, may not be a storybook trip
Why Biden’s return to Ireland, his ancestral homeland, may not be a storybook trip

Why Biden’s return to Ireland, his ancestral homeland, may not be a storybook trip

by host

Europe as a whole faces a host of rising political and security threats, alongside the constant demands of a grinding war in Ukraine with no clear end in sight and with newfound complications owing to leaks of strategic documents.

And as Biden departs for his first overseas trip since February, the challenges at home are multiplying: Deepening divides over the rise in gun violence, a court ruling aimed at further restricting abortion access, and lingering questions about his own political future.

The White House has scrambled to respond, spending recent days doing diplomatic damage control over the document leak, gaming out its legal response on abortion and seeking new ways to pressure the GOP on guns. Those efforts have taken increasing priority across various parts of the administration, officials said, adding that Biden will remain briefed as he travels abroad.

But those gathering storm clouds risk overshadowing a trip that Biden has looked forward to more than all others since winning the White House — and one that aides envisioned as an opportunity for the Irish Catholic president to play up his personal bond with Ireland and celebrate political progress there.

Biden on Wednesday will mark the 25th anniversary of the U.S.-brokered Good Friday Agreement that mostly ended decades of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland. He then will travel to the Irish Republic for the first time since he traced his lineage through the countryside as vice president in 2016.

“This is something you can sense he’s hoping will go well,” said Robert Savage, an Irish history scholar at Boston College. “He loves Ireland, and he wants to bask in the limelight of an American success story.”

But that gauzy depiction may be at odds with what awaits Biden on the ground. When he lands Tuesday night in Belfast, he’ll arrive in a region that hasn’t had a working legislature for the past year, and whose leaders are deadlocked over Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit future. The U.K.’s exit from the European Union has complicated Ireland’s trade with Northern Ireland, which is part of the U.K. That’s caused larger political dysfunction and fears of the collapse of the Good Friday accord and a return to bloody conflict.

The U.K. and EU have sought to resolve the issue with a proposed settlement called the Windsor Framework. But Northern Ireland’s main pro-British party, the Democratic Unionists, have opposed the framework in defiance of the U.K. It’s protesting the proposal by refusing to form a government in Northern Ireland under power-sharing rules that require it to jointly run the legislature with the Irish nationalist party Sinn Féin.

The terror threat is now considered “severe,” after the British government upgraded its assessment in late March. And there appears no imminent end to the political standoff that has already dented Northern Ireland’s finances and social services.

“No one wants to return to the period of the Troubles,” said Max Bergmann, director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former senior State Department official. “But it’s not completely settled, there are still huge challenges, and you don’t want to play with fire here. And in some ways, that’s what Brexit has done.”

Biden has endorsed the Windsor Framework as an even-handed compromise. In a further show of support, he’s slated to meet Wednesday with U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who clinched the deal in February but has struggled to sell it to Northern Ireland’s main pro-British party.

Yet even in a region where many fondly regard Biden as the most Irish U.S. president since John F. Kennedy, aides and experts say Biden is likely to avoid wading too deeply into the details of the ongoing dispute. Even as it coaxed the U.K. toward a post-Brexit compromise that kept the Good Friday Agreement intact, the White House held off on confirming that Biden would visit Northern Ireland until it was clear an agreement had been reached.

In a speech scheduled for Wednesday, Biden is expected to broadly hail the Windsor Framework while delicately skirting the underlying stalemate that’s paralyzed its government. In a further sign of the administration’s desire to limit the chance of any diplomatic blunders, Biden will steer clear of Northern Ireland’s parliament building and spend less than a day in Belfast before skipping south across the border. Even his meeting with Sunak has been scaled back, from the typical bilateral session to just a morning coffee.

“Biden’s role is to provide encouragement to all the parties in Northern Ireland to move forward,” said Daniel Mulhall, a longtime diplomat and Ireland’s former ambassador to the U.S. “I have no doubt that his speeches, when he appears in Belfast and Dublin and around the country, will be well attuned to the sensitivities.”

The trip could have served as a reprieve of sorts from domestic matters, ahead of Biden’s anticipated announcement that he will seek reelection. Instead, a pileup of high-profile issues is likely to follow him overseas.

Biden has yet to weigh in on the unprecedented arrest of Donald Trump, his former and possibly future chief rival for the presidency. His administration faces another adverse court ruling over abortion access, which Biden has vowed to protect despite his own complicated feelings on the issue. And the day before his departure came news of another mass shooting — this time in Kentucky, hours north of the Tennessee state capital where Republicans just finished expelling two Black lawmakers over their participation in gun violence protests.

Those developments could make it impossible for Biden to keep the focus on the imagery and sentimentality of his surroundings.

Biden is expected to make stops in Ireland’s County Louth and County Mayo, where he has distant relatives and had previously traced his family tree. He’s also slated to meet with Ireland’s president as part of a stay in Dublin highlighted by a speech to the country’s parliament.

A descendant of Irish immigrants mostly on his mother’s side, Biden frequently invokes his heritage as shaping his beliefs and setting him on his career path — accompanied as well by a sizable chip on his shoulder he’s acknowledged is tied to his upbringing in “an Irish Catholic neighborhood where it wasn’t viewed as being such a great thing.”

“Their values have been passed down, generation to generation,” Biden said of his ancestors during a St. Patrick’s Day event alongside Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar last month. “Growing up Irish American gave me the pride that spoke to both sides of the Atlantic, heart and soul that drew from the old and new.”

Though Biden has long been invested in Ireland’s politics — and the image of him as a departed but not forgotten son — he is relatively new to direct diplomacy with the country. Biden was not a central player in the talks leading up to the 1998 Good Friday agreement and has made only one prior trip to Belfast, in 1991.

He was an early member of the Friends of Ireland caucus that was founded in Congress more than 40 years ago to support peace efforts in Northern Ireland. His most prominent involvement came in the 1980s, when Biden helped lead opposition to a Reagan administration effort to make it easier for Britain to extradite members of the Irish Republican Army from the U.S.

Savage, who has written extensively about Irish political dynamics, said there’s no expectation Biden’s personal affection for Ireland will tilt America’s studied neutrality when it comes to the fraught U.K.-Ireland relationship. But in a nation that traditionally holds special admiration for American presidents, Biden represents a particularly welcome return to normal in the wake of the more turbulent, Brexit-sympathetic years of the Trump era.

“Biden’s seen as a stalwart, somebody that’s stuck by Ireland over the difficult years,” Savage said. “There’s a feeling that sanity has returned in Washington.”

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