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Biden in Belfast to commemorate Good Friday Agreement

President will also tour ancestral homeland

President Joe Biden speaks during the Annual Friends of Ireland luncheon in the Rayburn Room of the U.S. Capitol on March 17.
President Joe Biden speaks during the Annual Friends of Ireland luncheon in the Rayburn Room of the U.S. Capitol on March 17. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

President Joe Biden arrived Tuesday in Northern Ireland for a trip that will also take him to the Republic of Ireland to mark the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement and visit his ancestral homeland.

Members of Congress long interested in U.S.-Irish relations were also expected to visit for events related to the anniversary, including Massachusetts Rep. Richard E. Neal, the Democratic leader of the Friends of Ireland Caucus.

In an interview last week, Neal spoke of how much the situation has changed since the landmark 1998 agreement, which largely resolved decades of violent conflict between those who wanted Northern Ireland to remain in the United Kingdom and Irish nationalists.

Signs of the extent of the past political and religious turmoil remain to this day, with memorials across Belfast and clear demarcations between Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods.

“I think anybody who would have suggested 25 years ago that peace would have held, I think probably some would have thought they were stargazed,” Neal said.

“Today, the border has been eliminated and people get on with their daily lives,” Neal said. “Understanding that now as some of our goals have been met, the next goal, I think, would be to build a system where two traditions would become one community.”

Biden will begin his schedule Wednesday, meeting with British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak before delivering remarks at Ulster University’s Belfast campus and then departing for the Republic of Ireland.

“He’ll underscore the readiness of the United States to preserve those gains and support Northern Ireland’s vast economic potential to the benefit of all communities,” National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said Monday. “President Biden cares deeply about Northern Ireland and has a long history of supporting peace and prosperity there. As a U.S. senator, Joe Biden was an advocate for how the United States can play a constructive role supporting peace.”

Mitchell speaking next week

The senator most connected to the Good Friday Agreement was former Majority Leader George Mitchell, D-Maine, who after retiring from the Senate represented the United States in brokering the agreement.

“I thought that George Mitchell had the perfect temperament for engaging this historic conflict. And I think that his experience, but also his personal demeanor, I think was very important,” Neal said.

Mitchell is expected to travel to Belfast next week as part of events hosted by Queen’s University, where he will deliver a keynote address. President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are also expected to make that trip. Kirby was asked Monday about why Biden was traveling to the Emerald Isle this week instead of next week.

“This is really timed closer to the actual anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement,” Kirby said.

Kirby also declined to comment on security preparations related to the president’s travel. Ahead of Easter weekend, police in Northern Ireland reported threats of violence.

Biden told reporters before departing Tuesday that two of his family members who had not visited Ireland previously were accompanying him there. The president’s son, Hunter Biden, along with the president’s sister, Valerie Biden Owens, were seen at Joint Base Andrews.

Ancestor’s bricks in cathedral

While in Ireland, Biden plans to visit County Louth, where members of the Finnegan family, from whom Biden is descended, lived. He will also travel to County Mayo and speak at St. Muredach’s Cathedral, which is a key landmark in the history of the Biden family’s journey to America, involving his great-great-great-grandfather, Edward Blewitt.

Kirby said Blewitt sold 27,000 bricks to the cathedral.

“Those bricks were used to construct and support the great cathedral and helped Edward afford to buy tickets for himself and for his family to sail together to America decades later in 1851,” Kirby said.

The president will have other formal engagements in Ireland, including meeting with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and addressing the Irish parliament.

“Today, 1 in 10 Americans claim Irish ancestry, and Irish Americans are proudly represented in every facet of American life,” Kirby said. “Ireland is a key economic partner of the United States, and the United States and Ireland are working closely together to make the global economy more fair.”

The president’s visit comes after the announcement in late February of a new agreement, known as the Windsor Framework, between the United Kingdom and the European Union that would address issues with moving goods between Ireland and Northern Ireland following the U.K.’s exit from the EU.

Neal, who is the ranking member on the Ways and Means Committee, said the Windsor Framework is “certainly an improvement” over policies proposed under former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

“We want to make sure that given the aftermath of Brexit, that there is no threat to the Good Friday Agreement, of which America is a guarantor,” Neal said.

Before boarding Air Force One on Tuesday, Biden said that the main objective for the trip is to “make sure the Irish accords and the Windsor agreement stay in place, to keep the peace. … That’s the main thing.”

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