U.S. President Joe Biden travels to both sides of the Irish border this week, taking part in commemorations to mark the 25th anniversary of Northern Ireland’s Good Friday peace accord as well as making a pilgrimage to the towns of his Irish ancestors.
Biden’s visit comes as the durability of the peace accord is being tested by political disagreements and occasional attacks carried out by dissidents. The latest violence came just Monday when masked youths pelted police vehicles with petrol bombs during a march in Londonderry.
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is set to greet Biden when he arrives Tuesday night in Belfast. The next day Biden will hold a bilateral meeting with Sunak before giving an address at Belfast’s Ulster University.
The Good Friday agreement — which the United States helped to broker on April 10, 1998 — largely ended decades of sectarian violence that had plagued Northern Ireland since the late 1960s and that had also brought intermittent attacks to mainland Britain. While there is still some sporadic violence in Northern Ireland, the accord allowed a generation of children to grow up in relative peace.
Despite the successes of the accord, it has been under increasing strain since Britain’s exit from the European Union and disagreements over post-Brexit trade rules. The Northern Ireland Assembly has been in limbo for more than a year after the main unionist party pulled out of the government to protest the new trade rules.
Sporadic violence by groups opposed to peace has also increased. Last month, Britain’s intelligence agency raised the threat level in Northern Ireland from “domestic terrorism” to “severe.”
When asked if it was wise for Biden to travel to Northern Ireland at this time, U.S. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters Monday, “We don’t ever talk about security requirements protecting the president, but the president is more than comfortable making this trip.”
During Biden’s visit to Northern Ireland, the White House said the president would mark the progress since the Good Friday peace accord and underscore the region’s economic potential.
On Wednesday, Biden will then travel south to Ireland to spend three days in his ancestral homeland.
He will visit the town of Ballina, in county Mayo, where one of his great-great grandfathers lived before leaving for the United States in the mid-1800s. Biden’s relatives remain in the area and Joe Blewitt, the president’s third cousin, told Agence France Presse that Biden’s visit is “a very proud day for our family and for Ireland.”
The 43-year-old plumber, who first met Biden when he came to town as vice president in 2016, was among Biden’s relatives invited to the White House for St. Patrick’s Day last month.
While in Ireland, Biden also plans to visit the Cooley Peninsula in County Louth, where another of his great-great-grandfathers lived before emigrating during years of famine in the middle of the 19th century.
“One in 10 Americans claim Irish ancestry and Irish Americans are proudly represented in every facet of American life,” Kirby told reporters Monday. He described Biden as “very much looking forward” to the trip.
In addition to honoring his ancestors in Ireland, Biden will meet with Irish President Michael Higgins, address a joint session of the Irish Parliament and attend a dinner at Dublin Castle.