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Delicate diplomacy on show in Biden's Belfast trip

2023-06-04 02:27:23 source:The Washington Post author:Press center7 click:588order

This was a presidential visit which required delicate diplomacy.

US President Joe Biden's task was to sum up the achievements of the 25 years since the Good Friday peace deal against a backdrop of all-too-frequent political instability in Belfast.

He said the return of the power-sharing devolved government at Stormont was "critical" for Northern Ireland.

But he followed that up by adding: "That's a decision for you to make, not for me to make."

The remark was simultaneously challenging and sensitive.

The White House will have been aware that a tone which could have been interpreted as overbearing would have fuelled unionist hostility towards a president who they have often criticised in the past.

But Mr Biden's visit seems to have gone down reasonably well with the leader of unionism.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) said the president had made clear he hadn't come to "interfere" and that Mr Biden had "recognised the need to bring balance to what he had to say".

The DUP is vetoing the formation of a governing coalition at Stormont - the home of the Northern Ireland Assembly - in protest against Brexit trade barriers with the rest of the UK.

Mr Biden speaks often of his Irish roots but in Belfast he talked about his English ancestry.

He also mentioned the contribution made to the founding of the US by immigrants from an Ulster Scots background - the community which is associated with modern-day unionism.

That was surely an attempt to appeal to those in Northern Ireland who have been suspicious that US involvement in the peace process has been tinged with an Irish nationalist agenda.

The president's overriding message was that the US remained committed to Northern Ireland and was ready to invest.

Mr Biden even suggested Northern Ireland's economic output could triple "if things continue to move in the right direction".

The incentive was obvious - more stability would bring in more dollars.

The industries he mentioned are already bright spots in the Northern Ireland economy - cybersecurity, life sciences, green energy.

And the biggest round of applause during the speech came when the president pointed out Northern Ireland actor James Martin, who was recently on stage at the Academy Awards when the short film he starred in won an Oscar.

It was a way of highlighting Northern Ireland's global reputation as a hub for TV and film production.

The projects which have been based here have included Game of Thrones - one of the biggest TV series of recent years.

Mr Biden seemed to suggest that the creative industries could be substantially expanded - he described Northern Ireland as a "churn of creativity".

While the president has now moved across the Irish border, his economic envoy Joe Kennedy is staying on in Northern Ireland for a few days.

He will lead a trade delegation from the US later this year.

No-one can be sure if the devolved government will be in place when the corporate executives make their transatlantic journey.

The DUP has said it won't be swayed by any particular US input in deciding whether and when to allow power-sharing at Stormont to return.

The party is continuing to examine the new deal between the EU and the UK - the Windsor Framework - to assess whether it removes unionist concerns about Brexit trade barriers between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

There was no expectation that President Biden's arrival would herald a sudden breakthrough.

The most fulsome praise for him came from non-unionist parties.

The Sinn Féin vice-president Michelle O'Neill, who is in line to be first minister if the devolved government is restored, said Mr Biden's visit was a "special moment".

It is likely that the president's schedule in Northern Ireland would have been more extensive if the political circumstances had been more favourable.

For example he did not accept an invitation to address the Stormont assembly, which was established by the Good Friday Agreement.

However the prevailing view among those who witnessed his speech is that Mr Biden handled the sensitivities with skill and gave Northern Ireland a worthwhile moment in the worldwide spotlight.

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