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Northern Ireland, the Good Friday Agreement and Brexit were discussed during the St Patrick's Day virtual meeting with the US President Joe Biden. Al Drago
Washington DC

Most 'Irish' president since JFK: Biden in the White House 'enormously helpful' to Ireland

US ‘has skin in the game’ when it comes to maintaining peace in NI, says Congressman Brendan Boyle.

Political Correspondent Christina Finn reporting from the United States. 

IT IS ENORMOUSLY helpful to have a US President who has such strong links to and a deep understanding of Ireland, according to Irish-American US Congressman Brendan Boyle. 

The annual St Patrick’s Day celebrations at the White House are used each year by the Taoiseach and Irish officials to press home issues of importance – most recently Brexit, the Northern Ireland Protocol and the protection of the Good Friday Agreement.

While the crisis in Ukraine did dominate this year’s discussion between Micheál Martin and Joe Biden, issues in Northern Ireland are a constant.

There are pressing issues now, with the May elections coming up and the recent development of Jeffrey Donaldson refusing to nominate a First Minister, leaving the Executive in limbo.

At an Irish Embassy event in the Institute of Peace Building this week, the Irish Ambassador to the US, Dan Mulhall told the crowd that Biden is the most ‘Irish’ US president since John F Kennedy. 

During the events this week in Washington, each speech Biden delivered paid tribute to his ancestors who hailed from Mayo and Louth. He recalled stories of his much-cherished trips back to the homeland over the years, and of his yearnings to pay another visit soon.

‘I’m Irish’

In the past, Biden has even told a BBC reporter “I’m Irish”.  

But paddywhackery aside, how useful is it to have a man with Irish roots in the White House when the goings get tough for Ireland?

washington-usa-01st-mar-2021-representative-brendan-boyle-d-pa-during-a-press-conference-to-announce-an-ultra-millionaires-tax-for-those-with-fortunes-over-50-million-at-the-u-s-capitol-in-w Congressman Brendan Boyle Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Speaking to The Journal in Washington, Boyle said “it is absolutely helpful”.

“I think it is safe to say Ireland punches well above its weight. Now that’s partly due to the fact that Ireland is great at diplomacy. It is albeit a small country, but a successful one, which has a lot of contacts throughout the world, also a large diaspora, which includes the President of the United States, and many of us in Congress. That is absolutely helpful,” said Boyle.

There are politicians on Capitol Hill who were active participants in the peace process for a number of years, including Biden when he was a senator, said Boyle. 

“That’s very helpful in a moment like this, because in America, whether of Irish descent or not, if we see any potential for the Good Friday Agreement to be collateral damage to Brexit, we take that personally,” he added. 

During the US President’s St Patrick’s Day statement in the White House this week, he spoke explicitly about the need to implement the Northern Ireland protocol, Boyle highlighted. The protocol deals with keeping the border open between Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Shamrock ceremony

During the traditional shamrock ceremony in the White House, Biden made an impassioned plea that the Good Friday Agreement be protected amid the ongoing back-and-forth between the UK and the EU over post-Brexit arrangements for Northern Ireland.

The US president, speaking while the Taoiseach appeared virtually due to a positive Covid-19 PCR test, directly addressed the ongoing negotiations over the Northern Ireland Protocol and the political instability in the region.

Speaking about the relationship between Ireland and the US, he said:

Our nations both are deeply committed to protecting the hard-won gains of peace in Northern Ireland. The Good Friday Agreement has been the foundation of peace and prosperity in Northern Ireland for nearly 25 years.
It cannot change.

Amid resounding applause, he said he had made that point to UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, whom he described as a “friend”. Biden said all sides “must continue to resolve challenges” over the implementation of the protocol.

“The United States stands ready to work with all the communities of Northern Ireland to ensure its extraordinary economic potential and ensure that it’s realised, and we look forward to supporting the next Northern Ireland Executive after the upcoming Assembly elections, which are on their way,” he said.

Boyle said it is not just the President and those that have links to Ireland that are pretty steadfast in their views on Northern Ireland and the importance of not jeopardising peace.

The Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi also made repeated references to the Good Friday Agreement. She has previously warned the UK that no trade agreement with the US will be countenanced if any damage is done to the peace deal.

us-president-biden-and-irelands-pm-meet-virtually-washington Al Drago Al Drago

Boyle pointed out that Pelosi is not an Irish American, “but has very close links to this issue since the 1980s”. 

“She spoke about it quite bluntly at the Ireland Funds dinner, as well as again at the annual speakers luncheon. So that is enormously, enormously helpful,” said Boyle. 

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald told The Journal this week the fact Biden’s family ancestors hail from Mayo and Louth “doesn’t do any harm”.

She said that having such access during the St Patrick’s Day week in the US, where one can raise the important issues, is invaluable.

McDonald told an event at the US Council for Foreign Relations in New York earlier this week that when it came to Brexit, the UK showed it had a “complete underestimation” of the level of interest the US has in Irish peace.

The UK also misunderstood the broad consensus in American opinion to “peace in Ireland and indeed to unity in Ireland,” she said. She said that “London totally misunderstood and still misunderstands” that leaders on Capitol Hill are “on top” of the Irish question.

“I think people saw probably most directly the value of having relationships and friendships and support here in the United States at the height of the Brexit process,” she said.

Ensuring that Ireland is not the “collateral damage of the Brexit process” is also “very much up front and centre in the minds of very senior leadership figures here”, said McDonald.

Bringing about peace

Peace in Northern Ireland and the role that the US played in helping bring that about is something US political figures are proud of in Washington. It is referenced at nearly every event throughout the St Patrick’s Day week. 

“If you look at American foreign policy over the last half century, it’s one of the shining achievements. Now of course, it wasn’t just the US, obviously – Ireland, the UK, most of all the local parties, and people in Northern Ireland. But the United States played a big role,” said Boyle. 

“I remember what a risk it was when Bill Clinton granted a visa to Gerry Adams, in signalling that the US, at the presidential administration level, would get involved diplomatically in attempting to forge a peace process,” he said. 

“And then in appointing George Mitchell to that role, which, by the way, was initially opposed by the British because they looked at us interfering in an ‘internal’ British issue.”

Mitchell was a US Senator when Clinton asked him to help broker peace in Northern Ireland, where he became one of the architects of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

“Ultimately, they [the British] would come to have a more enlightened view,” added Boyle.

Boyle has said it would be “completely unacceptable” for the United Kingdom to abandon the Northern Ireland protocol, and has called on the UK to “live up” to the protocol that it agreed to with the EU on Northern Ireland.

The Good Friday Agreement is something that the Americans are proud of. The agreement is often referenced of an example of how peace can be brought about through diplomacy, sitting around a table and just talking.

“History has proven that with the people of Northern Ireland, our leaders can accomplish when they work together,” Biden told the audience at the shamrock ceremony this week, reaffirming the US administration’s “unequivocal support” for the Good Friday Agreement.

“There’s absolutely skin in the game for the United States on this,” concluded Boyle.

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