President Joe Biden landed in Belfast late Tuesday evening to kick off a long-sought trip to his ancestral homeland surrounded by heightened security because of the ‘severe’ threat of terrorism and amid a new political crisis.
He arrived to mark the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement accompanied by Joseph Patrick Kennedy III, the U.S. envoy to Northern Ireland, whose grand uncle JFK made his Irish roots a part of his political identity.
Also traveling on Air Force One was son Hunter Biden and sister Valerie Biden Owens, a close advisor – in a signal of how the president intends to make his trip a family affair.
The decision to bring his son also served as a defiant gesture to House Republicans, who are investigating Hunter’s business practices and the Biden family’s role in foreign deals.
President Joe Biden landed in Belfast late Tuesday evening, kicking off a long-sought trip to his ancestral homeland
He was accompanied by Joseph Patrick Kennedy III, the U.S. envoy to Northern Ireland, whose grand uncle, JFK, made his Irish roots a part of his political identity
Biden, whose Irish ancestors set sail for the U.S. 165 years ago, was greeted in Belfast by British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, on a visit the White House says is both personal and professional.
Although part of his trip will include celebrating the Belfast / Good Friday Agreement that helped bring peace 25 years ago, there were reminders of threats that once dominated life in Belfast.
Police said they discovered four suspected pipe bombs at a cemetery in Derry, a day after people threw gasoline bombs at police during parades on Easter Monday.
As he flew out of Washington on Tuesday morning, Biden said the main aim of his four-day trip was to protect peace deals. ‘Keep your fingers crossed,’ he told reporters traveling with him on Air Force One.
Meanwhile, police in Belfast, his first stop, laid down a ring of steel, deploying armored cars in a reminder of the violence that plagued the city for decades.
The bulk of Biden’s visit will take him south of the border, to counties that were home to his ancestors, but his brief time in Northern Ireland will include a chance to mark the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement and other deals that secured peace.
‘Make sure the Irish accords and the Windsor agreement stay in place,’ said Biden when asked about the trip’s purpose.
‘Keep the peace. That’s the main thing, and it looks like we’re gonna.’
Biden also made a special phone call from Air Force One – to Kennedy family matriarch Ethel Kennedy — the widow of Robert F. Kennedy — to wish her a happy 95th birthday.
Biden also made a special phone call from Air Force One – to Kennedy family matriarch Ethel Kennedy, the widow of Robert F. Kennedy, to wish her a happy 95th birthday.
‘@Potus just called to wish Grandma Ethel happy birthday,’ Ethel’s daughter Kerry Kennedy wrote on Instagram. ‘He was 35,000 feet above the earth with @JoeKennedyiii, U.S. Special Envoy to Northern Ireland. He said how much of a difference Joe K is making, especially on economic development in Northern Ireland, and how happy he is to be traveling with Joe K today on the way to Belfast.’
In her Instagram post, Kerry added that the president told Ethel ‘he had two heroes sitting right by his desk, Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King.’
In Belfast, armored vehicles parked up outside the Grand Central Hotel, where barriers were erected to close the street to traffic.
The violence is nothing compared with the decades of violence known as the Troubles, but Britain’s MI5 intelligence agency recently increased the threat level from domestic terrorism to ‘severe’ – meaning an attack is highly likely.
The result is a major policing operation. Some 300 officers have been drafted in from elsewhere in the U.K. to bolster numbers, with the entire cost coming to about £7 million (about $8.7 million).
Biden is in town to mark the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Belfast Agreement that ended the years of sectarian attacks.
‘Twenty-five years ago, Northern Ireland’s leaders chose peace. I look forward to marking the anniversary in Belfast, underscoring the U.S. commitment to preserving peace and encouraging prosperity,’ he wrote on Twitter.
Biden arrived with his son Hunter (far left) and sister Valerie Biden Owens for the trip
Police in Belfast set up a ring of steel around the city center hotel where President Joe Biden will stay during his brief visit to Northern Ireland
Easter Monday brought violence to Derry, where masked teenagers through petrol bombs at a police vehicle during a march by dissident republicans opposed to the 1998 peace deal
There is a heavy police presence in the center of Belfast ahead of Biden’s arrival
While in Belfast, Biden, who has long been known for his pro-Irish views, has been warned to tread carefully for fear of offending unionists loyal to London and who are boycotting the province’s power-sharing government.
The president will meet leaders from five Northern Irish parties on Wednesday.
‘The president will have the opportunity to engage with the political parties of Northern Ireland before his speech,’ said John Kirby, the White House national security spokesperson.
Roads have been closed around Biden’s hotel amid a huge police operation to keep him safe
EXCLUSIVE: MP warns Biden to avoid anti-British gaffes during Belfast visit: Political foes are waiting to ‘weaponize’ president’s jokes for political gain to derail Northern Ireland’s deadlock
President Joe Biden needs to be on best behavior during his visit to Northern Ireland and avoid making any anti-British gaffes that could further derail the region’s deadlocked political system, according to one of the province’s MPs.
Claire Hanna, who represents South Belfast for the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party, said unionists were ready to seize on any clumsy jokes or asides for political gain.
But Biden has a habit of peppering remarks about his Irish links with memories of his mother’s anti-English sentiment and dubious jokes about the Protestant community.
‘Any such gaffes would be mercilessly weaponized by the Democratic Unionist Party,’ said Hanna, referring to the biggest unionist party.
Belfast MP Claire Hanna said President Joe Biden will need to mind his manners during his visit to Northern Ireland. Any gaffe will be seized on by pro-British unionists, she said
Biden arrives at a politically awkward time. Northern Ireland’s government has not sat in nearly a year amid wrangling over post-Brexit trade arrangements
The timing is designed to mark the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, which ended decades of violence.
But it comes at a time of political crisis. The province has not had a government since May last year.
The DUP has refused to take part because of wrangling over post-Brexit trade arrangements.
And Biden is expected to meet the leaders of Northern Ireland’s five political parties on Wednesday.
Experts hold out little hope that any encouragement from a U.S. president known for his pro-Irish sentiments could help ease the impasse. Instead, they fear his occasional anti-British sentiments could further alienate unionists who want Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom.
As vice president, for example, Biden caused massive offense to Northern Ireland’s unionist community when, during a St Patrick’s Day event, he joked: ‘If you’re wearing orange, you’re not welcome here.’
Northern Ireland’s primarily Protestant unionist community associate themselves with the color in celebration of William of Orange’s victory over Catholic forces at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.
Hanna said unionists would look for similar slights during Biden’s visit.
Biden is visiting for the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement which ended decades of violence. This 1975 photograph shows the aftermath of a bomb attack on the Europa Hotel
Easter is always a flashpoint in Northern Ireland, and republican youths clashed with police in Derry on Monday, a reminder that the 1998 peace deal was only the start of a process
While many of Biden’s gaffes can be shrugged off as inconsequential, Northern Ireland’s febrile political scene means they could have a profound impact.
‘I mean, I think from day one, they characterize Biden’s Irish roots as meaning that he was hostile to Northern Ireland,’ she told DailyMail.com.
‘You know, in Northern Ireland, people go out of their way to be offended. They’ll be on high alert looking for something to be cross about in what he says.’
Before heading south of the border, Biden will spend less than a day in Northern Ireland.
That schedule has already annoyed some in Belfast who believe he should spend more time in the province.
But it does reduce the time for gaffes in such a politically sensitive place.
Biden’s maternal line emigrated from Ireland during the Great Famine. The Blewitts left Co. Mayo and settled in Scranton, PA, while the Finnegans left Co. Louth and came to New York
Unionists have long been suspicious of Biden and his Irish Catholic heritage. As a senator in 1985, he spoke out against making it easier to extradite Irish Republican Army militants from the U.S. to Britain, a sentiment popular with Irish-Americans but not in Britain.
He has talked often about his mother’s hatred for England, which was so intense that she once refused to use a bed that Queen Elizabeth II had slept in.
In his memoir, ‘Promises to Keep,’ he recalls with a degree of embarrassment at his English surname Biden.
And he describes how his Irish-American aunt Gertie Finnegan once told him: ‘Your father is not a bad man. He’s just English.’
In 2020, as president-elect, he took a cheeky dig at the UK’s national broadcaster when a BBC reporter shouted a question at him. ‘The BBC?’ he said, moving on with a smile. ‘I’m Irish.’
‘It’s part of the persona,’ said Hanna. ‘He’s clearly not mean-spirited, and it’s sort of a Dad joke. But it’s genuinely not helpful.’