Biden urges Northern Ireland leaders to seize ‘incredible economic opportunity’

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US President Joe Biden urged Northern Irish political leaders to restore their powersharing government with the promise that scores of major US corporations were ready to invest in the region as he marked the 25th anniversary of peace in Belfast.

Biden, who is fiercely proud of his Irish heritage, spent just over half a day in the UK region - where he met British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak - before travelling south to the Irish Republic for two-and-a-half days of speeches and meetings with officials and distant relatives.

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The brief Belfast stop comes against the backdrop of the latest political stalemate in which the devolved powersharing government, a key part of the 1998 peace deal, has not met for more than a year due to a row about post-Brexit trade arrangements.

“It took long hard years of work to get to this place,” Biden said in a speech at the new Ulster University campus in Belfast, remarking how the city had been transformed since he first travelled there as a young senator.

“Today’s Belfast is the beating heart of Northern Ireland and is poised to drive unprecedented economic opportunity. There are scores of major American corporations wanting to come here wanting to invest.”

Biden said powersharing remained critical to the future of Northern Ireland and that an effective devolved government would “draw even greater opportunity in this region.”

“So I hope the assembly and the executive will soon be restored. That’s a judgment for you to make, not me, but I hope it happens,” he told an audience that included the leaders of Northern Ireland’s five main political parties.

‘Huge pity’

Britain’s departure from the European Union has at times strained ties between Britain and Biden’s White House as London and Brussels struggled to find a divorce deal that would not damage the principles of the peace agreement.

Sunak said he spoke to Biden on Wednesday about “incredible economic opportunities” for Northern Ireland, and described both countries as “very close partners.” The pair met over tea at the Belfast hotel Biden stayed in overnight.

Biden said the recent Windsor Framework deal between the European Union and Britain to ease post-Brexit trade barriers between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom offered the stability and predictability to encourage greater investment.

That deal has so far failed to convince the region’s largest pro-British party, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), to end a boycott of the local assembly. Powersharing has endured multiple breakdowns and suspensions since 1998, including the assembly not sitting between 2017 and 2020 over a different row.

One of the architects of the Good Friday Agreement, former Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, said it was a “huge pity” and a “big own goal” that the devolved assembly was not functioning to facilitate a presidential address.

Biden will speak in the Irish parliament on Thursday.

The 1998 peace accord largely ended 30 years of bloodshed between mainly Catholic nationalist opponents and mainly Protestant unionist supporters of British rule.

‘Not anti-British’

The DUP has said Biden’s visit - the first to the region by a US president in 10 years - will not convince it to end its protest at the trade rules that treat the province differently to the rest of the UK.

The DUP criticized some of Biden’s interventions during the Brexit talks and one of its lawmakers, Sammy Wilson, described Biden as “anti-British” on Wednesday in an interview with a British newspaper.

White House official Amanda Sloat said Biden’s track record “shows that he’s not anti-British.”

Biden met Northern Irish political leaders, including the head of the DUP Jeffrey Donaldson, one-by-one before his speech.

Biden was flanked on his arrival by new US special envoy to Northern Ireland for economic affairs Joseph Kennedy III, of the storied Irish American political family, who will remain in Northern Ireland for a number of days to meet business leaders.

Kennedy told students in the audience before Biden’s speech that the US was ready to “double down” on its commitment to Northern Ireland and to bring prosperity to every corner of the province.

Sloat said earlier that, while the US would not put conditions on any economic investment in Northern Ireland, it was fair to say a functioning government would further provide stability and certainty to businesses.

Biden will travel later on Wednesday to County Louth - midway between Belfast and Dublin - where his great-grandfather was born. Stormy weather is expected across the island.

Biden will meet relatives from another side of his family in the western county of Mayo on Friday.

Biden’s great-great-grandfather Owen Finnegan, a shoemaker from County Louth, emigrated to the United States in 1849. His family, including Biden’s great-grandfather James Finnegan, followed him in 1850.

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