What was the point of Joe Biden visiting Northern Ireland?

Belfast city centre. Photo by K. Mitch Hodge on Unsplash

The main thing about Joe Biden’s visit to Northern Ireland was its brevity. On his one full day in the province (April 12), he left right after lunch, which meant it was a half-day after all.

It was, as the BBC’s political editor Chris Mason termed it, a “blink and you’ll miss it visit”. The US president, he pointed out, would “be in Northern Ireland for only around 15 hours, for around half of which he’ll be in bed”.

As there was no joint press conference with British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and no substantial political intervention – Stormant is dormant, anyway, remember –Downing Street started to look ahead to next week and the arrival in Northern Ireland of the next set of heavy-hitters from the US.

On April 19, the Agreement 25 conference in Belfast will be hosted by former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and attended by ex-President Bill Clinton. Mr Sunak will be in Belfast for the whole shindig, which includes a gala dinner.

So, what was the point of Mr Biden’s visit to Northern Ireland?

It was a “heritage tour” cum “historical mile-marker”, to use the phrase employed by one analyst. Mr Biden was acknowledging, as well he might, the role America played in brokering the Good Friday peace agreement for Northern Ireland 25 years ago. And this “most Irish president” since JFK, in the words of the British press, got to spend a few days in the Republic of Ireland following the roots of his Irish family tree.

But in doing nothing further on the Good Friday agreement – or indeed the tangled state of political affairs in Northern Ireland, Mr Biden did one further thing. He showed the limits of American power in the 21st century.

As well as the state of the relationship with post-Brexit Britain: not that special, after all.


Weaker post-Brexit Britain feels the sting of Biden’s brief trip to Northern Ireland