Biden says economic growth in N Ireland is ‘just beginning’


BELFAST, Northern Ireland (AP) – President Joe Biden expressed hope Wednesday that Northern Ireland will “not go back” to an era of deadly violence that was capped 25 years ago by a U.S.-brokered peace deal, nudging the politicians here to resolve a political crisis that has left this United Kingdom member without a functioning government.

“It’s up to us to keep this going,” Biden said of the economic growth and prosperity Northern Ireland has experienced since the Good Friday Agreement was signed. He spoke at Ulster University’s new campus in Belfast, and noted that the vast amount of glass used in its construction was a sign of that progress and likely wouldn’t have been possible during the sectarian violence known as “the Troubles,” in which some 3,600 people were killed in bombings and other attacks.

On his first presidential visit to Northern Ireland, Biden stressed that American investment will continue to help fuel its economic growth, especially if Belfast’s fractious politicians resolve a stalemate that has put their government on pause.

“The simple truth is that peace and economic opportunity go together,” Biden said, noting that Northern Ireland’s total economic output had doubled in the quarter-century since the Good Friday peace deal was signed in April 1998. He predicted that gross domestic product would more than triple “if things continue to move in the right direction,” and he said that a bright future is “just beginning.”

“Your history is our history,” the president said. “And even more important, your future is America’s future.”

Biden’s speech navigated Northern Ireland’s complex political currents, referring to both his British and Irish ancestry, and noting the contribution to the U.S. of largely Protestant Ulster Scots as well as Irish Catholics like his own forebears.

U.S. involvement was key to negotiating the Good Friday accord, which largely ended decades of sectarian violence that killed 3,600 people. Biden credited people who were willing to “risk boldly for the future” by reaching the agreement, reminding the audience that “peace was not inevitable.”

While that peace has endured, Northern Ireland is currently without a functioning government. Stormont, the seat of its assembly, has been suspended since the Democratic Unionist Party, which formed half of a power-sharing government, walked out a year ago over a post-Brexit trade dispute. Biden urged all sides to get back to work, saying “democracy needs champions” and that Northern Ireland’s future is in their hands.

“That’s a judgement for you to make, not me, but I hope it happens,” he said.

In addition, a top police official was shot and injured in February, an attack that authorities have blamed on Irish Republican Army dissidents opposed to the peace process.

“The enemies of peace will not prevail,” Biden said. “Northern Ireland will not go back, pray God.”

Biden opened Wednesday by having tea with U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. He met with the leaders of Northern Ireland’s five main political parties at the university before giving his speech. Biden had said earlier Wednesday that he would listen to what they had to say.

Amanda Sloat, the president’s top adviser on European affairs, said Biden wouldn’t try to strongarm Northern Ireland’s politicians back to the table even though he wants to see the Stormont government back up and running.

“The purpose of the president’s visit today is to mark the Good Friday Agreement, to continue to reaffirm the support of the United States for peace and prosperity,” she said. “The president’s message … is the United States’ strong support for that, the belief that the people of Northern Ireland deserve to have a democratically elected power sharing representative governance.”

Sunak said afterward that he and Biden had a “very good discussion” about investment in Northern Ireland, along with foreign policy issues. He noted that he and Biden had met last month in California, and that they’d be seeing each other again in May at a world leader summit in Japan, followed by Sunak’s White House visit in June.

“We’re very close partner and allies. We cooperate on a range of things,” Sunak said.

Northern Ireland’s political crisis stems, in part, from Brexit. Britain’s departure from the European Union left Northern Ireland poised uneasily between the rest of the U.K. and EU member Ireland and put the peace agreement under increased strain.

After much wrangling, Britain and the EU struck a deal in February to address the tensions over trade, an agreement welcomed by the U.S., which had urged London and Brussels to end their post-Brexit feud. The Democratic Unionist Party, though, says the Windsor Framework doesn’t go far enough and has refused to return to government.

As he set off for Belfast on Tuesday, Biden said a priority of his trip to Northern Ireland was to “keep the peace.”

While U.K. officials hope the president’s presence can help nudge the unionists back into government, Biden faces mistrust from some unionists because of his Irish American heritage. Sammy Wilson, a DUP lawmaker in the U.K. Parliament, told Talk TV that Biden “has got a record of being pro-republican, anti-unionist, anti-British.”

“The track record of the president shows he’s not anti-British,” Sloat said, adding that “the U.K. remains one of out strongest and closest allies.”

Biden is spending less than 24 hours in Northern Ireland before moving on to the Republic of Ireland for a three-day visit, including an address to the Dublin parliament, attendance at a gala dinner and trips to two ancestral hometowns.

Plans for Biden to visit a cemetery Wednesday in County Louth, on Ireland’s east coast, were scrapped because of uncooperative weather. He was also scheduled to tour a castle and walk around downtown Dundalk, possibly with some distant relatives.

Neil Given, a civil servant who lives in Belfast, welcomed Biden’s visit but said his “expectations are not great” that it would unblock the political logjam.

“We have prevaricated for well over a year now, and ever since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement there have been numerous stoppages of the institutions of Stormont,” he said. “Whether or not Mr. Biden’s visit can in 24, 48 hours pull people together and perhaps get a message we really do need to get back to government, I don’t know.

“But hopefully he can do that. I know there is no more powerful person certainly to be over that can give out that message.”

A massive security operation was in place for Biden’s stay in Belfast, with a heavy police presence on blocked-off streets around the president’s hotel and the Ulster campus.

Last month, U.K. intelligence services raised Northern Ireland’s terrorism threat level from “substantial” to “severe.” But Biden said then that not even the heightened risk of an attack would keep him from making the trip.

Biden last visited Ireland in 2016, when he was U.S. vice president.

Samuel Olufemia, who is studying for a degree in public health at Ulster University, said he was looking forward to meeting Biden on campus.

“Having him in Belfast here is a privilege,” said Olufemia, who is from Nigeria. “It’s going to be an historic visit, and that’s one of the reasons I’m excited.”

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Lawless reported from London. Chris Megerian contributed from Washington.

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This story has been corrected to show Biden and Sunak drank tea, not coffee.


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