US President Joe Biden takes a selfie with students follwing the 25th anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, at Ulster University, Belfast, Northern Ireland April 12, 2023. Image Credit: REUTERS

Belfast: 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 leaving for the Irish Republic for two-and-a-half days of speeches and meetings with officials and distant relatives.

The brief Belfast stop was 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.” The 1998 peace accord was backed by the US and largely ended 30 years of bloodshed between mainly Catholic nationalist opponents and mainly Protestant unionist supporters of British rule. But political progress has been held back by a series of rows, most recently over how Britain’s departure from the European Union affects the border with EU member Ireland.

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”.

US President Joe Biden holds a toy Air Force One as he meets with U.S. embassy staff families in Dublin, Ireland April 12, 2023. Image Credit: REUTERS

“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.

DUP unmoved

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.

DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson said Biden’s visit - the first to the region by a US president in 10 years - did not change the political dynamic around his party’s protest at the trade rules that treat the province differently to the rest of the UK.

The DUP wants further changes to the UK/EU deal and will put proposals to the British government within the next few weeks, Donaldson said. London has already said the deal cannot be renegotiated.

Donaldson, who like other local leaders had a short one-on-one meeting with Biden, said the president made clear that he was not in Belfast to interfere and that his speech “was much more balanced than we have heard perhaps in the past”.

Present and former DUP colleagues earlier described Biden as “anti-British” and “hating the United Kingdom”, prompting a While House official to say that the president’s track record “shows that he’s not anti-British”.

But Britain’s departure from the EU 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, their hope that powersharing will be restored as soon as possible, and described both countries as “very close partners”.

US President Joe Biden (L) reacts as he meets with Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in Belfast on April 12, 2023, as part of a four day trip to Northern Ireland and Ireland for the 25th anniversary commemorations of the "Good Friday Agreement". Image Credit: REUTERS

The pair met over tea at the Belfast hotel Biden stayed in overnight.

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 Northern Ireland’s devolved assembly was not functioning to facilitate a presidential address.

Biden will speak in the Irish parliament on Thursday.

US special envoy to Northern Ireland for economic affairs Joseph Kennedy III, of the storied Irish American political family, accompanied Biden and will remain in Northern Ireland for a number of days to meet business leaders.

Colum Eastwood, the leader of the smaller nationalist SDLP party, said Biden’s message was clear: “Get your act together and we’ll help with investment.” Biden will travel later on Wednesday to County Louth - midway between Belfast and Dublin - where his great-grandfather was born. He 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.