The Good Friday Agreement was aided by America, so what have Biden and Trump said about Northern Ireland?
The world will watch the USA decide Biden or Trump on November 3rd, but with a Brexit deal (or lack of) threatening the Good Friday Agreement and trade deals with the US criticised, where does the future President stand on Northern Ireland?
*This story was edited and updated on 18 October 2020 to reflect the Biden/Harris campaign statement on Northern Ireland/Irish and the Good Friday Agreement that was published on 17 October 2020.
It’s been said President Trump has divided America, something that Northern Ireland is all too familiar with. “What about Northern Ireland? There is so much hatred there. I just don’t understand where it comes from” is what the President apparently remarked to then British Minister Theresa May in 2017 according to leaked notes to The Telegraph.
President Trump’s understanding of Northern Irish history and its conflict is not the first error he’s apparently made regarding the island. He also famously appeared to not realise that Ireland is not in the UK during a press conference with former Irish Taoiseach (Irish prime minister) Leo Varadkar, “ One of the reasons the UK, basically…it’s got the border, it’s got very strong borders, and they’re doing a very good job. They don’t have very much (COVID-19) infection at this point and hopefully, they’ll keep it that way ” the President stated in front of a bewildered Varadkar who was at the White House in the lead up to St Patrick’s Day.
With May and Varadkar gone, President Trump could hold on to his leadership for another four years, and with Brexit threatening the Good Friday Agreement, it may be time for the leader of the free world to cast his eye to Northern Ireland for a more in-depth understanding of “where it comes from.”
His upcoming rival, former Vice President Joe Biden seems to understand where it comes from deeply. As he took to the stage to face President Donald J Trump in the first (and now only) 2020 Presidential Debate, one of the only few things to come out of the former Vice President’s mouth that weren’t uninterrupted was a pointed reference to his Irish Catholic roots.
“It’s a little bit like how this guy and his friends look down on so many people,” the former Vice President said. “They look down their nose on people like Irish Catholics, like me, who grow up in Scranton.”
The remarks are a stark reminder to the American and worldwide audience that Biden is proud of his connections to the emerald isle and it’s these roots that may influence America’s position under a Biden presidency on a possible threat a new Brexit deal may have on the Good Friday Agreement.
The aforementioned threat is following UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s latest plans to push forward with essentially a ‘no deal’ Brexit. Many have brought to the forefront the consequences this would have for the Good Friday Agreement, also known as The Belfast Agreement. The agreement is a piece (or pair) of legislation signed on 10 April 1998 that ended most of the violence of the Troubles, political conflict in Northern Ireland. It was seen as the region’s rebirth. A new government, a new justice system, a new Northern Ireland. One that would take it away from the headlines and into harmony.
The Good Friday Agreement was famously guaranteed by the United States, who were instrumental in its signing. Unlike most conflicted regions, the United States had little interest in the affairs of Northern Ireland aside from some background chats from Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan had during their presidencies years earlier. That changed when Bill Clinton took office. According to Center Forward, an American based organisation that sees the US as ’neither left nor right’ it was when Clinton appointed George Mitchell as Special Envoy for Northern Ireland to specifically support and aid the Northern Ireland Peace Process when America’s role in Northern Ireland began its journey and ultimately a long relationship. President Clinton’s administration then became more involved with appealing to Sinn Féin, the Irish Republican wing to become more involved in a possible peace process. It was Clinton’s granting of a limited visa to then President of Sinn Féin, Gerry Adams to discuss a “republican move from the Irish Republican Army (IRA) to constitutional legitimacy” that is said to have helped and influence the IRA to call a ceasefire in 1995. Clinton remained active in Northern Ireland’s peace process for the rest of his time in office, and during a speech at the Waterfront Hall in Belfast a few months after the Good Friday Agreement’s signing, he said that “from here on the destiny of Northern Ireland is in the hands of its people and its representatives, from farming to finance, education to health care, this new assembly has the opportunity and the obligation to forge the future.” Though no longer President, the Clinton’s have remained a steady presence in Belfast, with President Clinton’s wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton (President Trump’s Democratic opponent in the 2016 US Presidential Election) currently holding the role of Chancellor of Queen’s University, Belfast.
The continuation and any possible threat of Johnson’s plans have been furiously decried by US politicians including Democratic nominee for President, ex-Vice President Joe Biden who tweeted on 16 September that “We can’t allow the Good Friday Agreement…to become a casualty of Brexit.”
This statement makes it clear that a future Biden presidency will not involve the agreement being on the table in trade negotiations.
The current Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, fellow Democrat, fellow Catholic and staunch critic of President Trump, Nancy Pelosi also added in a statement to The Irish Times in September that Britain must “respect the Northern Ireland Protocol assigned with the EU to ensure the free flow of goods across the Border.”
“The Good Friday Agreement is the bedrock of peace in Northern Ireland and an inspiration for the whole world,” she said.
“Whatever form it takes, Brexit cannot be allowed to imperil the Good Friday Agreement, including the stability brought by the invisible and frictionless border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland.”
“If the UK violates that international treaty and Brexit undermines the Good Friday accord, there will be absolutely no chance of a US-UK trade agreement passing the Congress. The Good Friday Agreement is treasured by the American people and will be proudly defended in the United States Congress.”
When asked for comment, a State Department spokesperson said “The United States is committed to preserving peace, prosperity, and stability in Northern Ireland through the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.”
Harkening back to the history of Northern Ireland’s connections to the US, they said that “(The United States) has a special history with the people of both the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. The U.S. Consulate General Belfast was established on May 27, 1796, by the first American President, George Washington, and is the second oldest continuously operating U.S. consulate in the world. Successive Administrations and Congress have long focused attention and resources on supporting peace and prosperity in the region.”
“On March 7, the President announced the appointment of former acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney to serve as U.S. Special Envoy for Northern Ireland. The appointment of a senior member of the White House staff, and a former Cabinet member, reflects the President’s interest in, and commitment to, Northern Ireland.
The Special Envoy’s role is to advocate for U.S. policy priorities in Northern Ireland, including continued implementation of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement and to uphold U.S. support for peace and prosperity in Northern Ireland.”
Possibly remaining now the most the current administration has said on Northern Ireland, a spokesperson also said that “We remain steadfast supporters of a secure, prosperous Northern Ireland in which all communities have a voice and enjoy the gains of the hard-won peace.”
Biden has a long history of supporting Ireland in the peace process. It has not come without controversy, however. Before President Obama’s election, the Sunday Life reported that Biden had once described Britain’s position in Northern Ireland as “absolutely outrageous”. It was also reported that in 1985 he told the Senate during a debate on a possible extradition treaty: “If we ratify this treaty, we will be admitting that the justice system in Northern Ireland is fair — a notion I absolutely abhor.”
Biden later condemned those involved with IRA murders and spoke about the threat to the civil liberties of the IRA killers if they were ever returned to Northern Ireland.
Later upon greeting then Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny at his home in Washington, a then-Vice President Biden said to Kenny that “if you’re wearing orange, you’re not welcome in here.” Biden later added that he was “only joking” however the comments outraged Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party who called the joke “disgraceful and careless” and called on Mr Biden to apologise.
In 2017 Biden also courted critics from the DUP when he was photographed alongside Ex-Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams and Rita O’Hare. O’Hare has an outstanding arrest warrant in the UK following her connection to the attempted murder of a British Warrant Officer in 1972. O’Hare is not allowed to return to Northern Ireland.
*On October 17 2020, Vice President Joe Biden and his running mate, Senator Kamala Harris released a campaign statement on the Good Friday Agreement and Northern Ireland. It’s included below —
Although Biden may claim the island as his ancestral home, Trump isn’t without support in Northern Ireland. In early September, three DUP MPs, Sammy Wilson, Ian Paisley and Paul Girvan posed outside the Houses of Parliament with a banner reading: ‘Trump 2020, keep America great.”
It was met with a barrage of criticism online, with UUP MLA Doug Beattie tweeting at the image in which the men all have their thumbs up, saying he was ‘cringing.’
Beattie later added that “People can, of course, support whoever they want for the US presidency, but to see three MPs giving the thumbs-up while holding a Trump banner personally makes me cringe.”
Paisley, whose father Ian Paisley Snr denounced the Good Friday Agreement as “the mother of all treacheries,” has said in the past that him and the current President are “good friends” and has previously been invited to the White House as a family friend. It’s not believed that President Trump is the “personal friend” that funded Mr Paisley’s £4,000 holiday to the Maldives, a ‘gift’ he felt he did not need to be declared with the parliamentary authorities which raised eyebrows.
Despite Trump never having visited Belfast, speaking to the News Letter on Friday, Mr Paisley responded to the criticism by insisting Mr Trump is a “friend of Ulster” and a “much more helpful President to the United Kingdom” than his 2020 election rival Joe Biden.
Continuing that “The fact of the matter is that President Trump will be a much more helpful President to the United Kingdom as we exit the EU than Joe Biden.” When asked about his expectations regarding Trump’s possibly re-election this November for this article, Mr Paisley said “It is entirely a matter for the American people whom they should elect as their president. President Trump has certainly proved himself to be a friend of the entire UK.”
Referencing the potential deals between the UK and the US post-Brexit, he continued that “He (President Trump) has put a trade deal at the top of his agenda” and that said that “Mr Biden when he was Vice President supported the proposal to put the UK at the back of the line! The UK needs a president with a track record of support for us not opposition to us.”
Sammy Wilson previously supported Trump’s presidency, tweeting a statement shortly after his election that the new US President “will look favourably on trade deals with (the UK) and “unlike (President) Obama won’t put us at the back of the queue.” “I hope that President Trump succeeds in the election not only for the good of the US economy which is important to NI as a major exporter and recipient of inward investment by US firms but because his stance on major international issues such as the Middle East, China and climate change,” Mr Wilson said when asked for comment for this article. “Until the coronavirus pandemic he had improved the US economy bringing jobs to poor areas America, delivered more for Black Americans than Obama ever did and his cheap energy policy benefitted countries outside America as well.” He’s optimistic, and continues to say that “(he) would love to see him visit NI when he wins, while Biden may appeal to nationalists with his pro-Irish, and socialist, policies Donald Trump for all his personal weaknesses resonates with the pro-freedom, a pro-British, pro-business views of the unionist population.”
DUP Leader and First Minister of Northern Ireland, Arlene Foster previously met with President Trump, VP Mike Pence and Nancy Pelosi at a lunch hosted by Pelosi in March 2019. She claimed that during the event the US had offered “great commitment amongst the US administration to help Northern Ireland.” Adding that she invited them to The 148th Open Championship in Portrush that year. Neither Pelosi, Pence, or famous golf enthusiast President Trump attended.
Whilst he maintains support with Northern Ireland’s leading political party, President Trump’s visit to Ireland in June 2019 was met with protests and outrage.
Leader of the SDLP and MP for the Foyle area Colum Eastwood said that “the embarrassing spectacle of the British Government rushing to bend the knee in deference to Trump’s office, divorced from his toxic politics, demeans their position on the international stage” stressing his opposition to the President’s visit to the country.
The grounds of Belfast City Hall hosted a ‘Stop Trumpism’ by ExAct: Expat Action Group NI, a Belfast-based political action group for progressive Americans living in Northern Ireland, which clashed with a small group of pro-Trump supporters, headed by the former deputy leader of Britain First Jayda Fransen.
Fransen has had three anti-Muslim videos ‘retweeted’ by the President, much to the outrage of world leaders, afterwards she asked for the President’s help in her Belfast’s court case. In 2017 Fransen’s Twitter account was permanently suspended, and in 2018 she was found guilty of religiously aggravated harassment and sentenced to 36 weeks in prison.
As this article was about to be published a large banner appeared outside Carrick Castle in Carrickfergus claiming to be from ‘ULSTER SCOTS FOR TRUMP’ listing the President stances, such as ‘Pro-Life, Pro-Brexit, Pro-Borders’ amongst others with large red stating at the bottom ‘GOD BLESS DONALD J. TRUMP.’ It later became clear that the group had been founded by controversial ex-councillor Jolene Bunting. Bunting previously joined Fransen at City Hall during the counter-protest in support of President Trump. In 2018, she received a four-month interim suspension from the local government standards commissioner pending the outcome of an investigation into 14 complaints against her. The group claims “Ulster-Scots have helped to shape the American way of life” and the “Ulster-Scots diaspora can make the difference in the 2020 presidential election”. It’s not immediately clear how exactly the group located nearly 4,000 miles from Washington DC can aid President Trump’s election. Ms Bunting did respond to a request for a comment for this article.
Whilst the President receives support from members of Protestant groups in Northern Ireland, for context Trump attended a New York City Sinn Féin fundraiser in 1995. Footage of the event shows then-leader Gerry Adams shaking hands with a then Mr Trump. The dinner which cost $200 to attend and guests were invited to donate to Friends of Sinn Féin according to The Guardian. The event, which occurred less than four months before the Provisional IRA broke the ceasefire by bombing Canary Wharf in London killing two men, was also protested by those who had relatives killed during Northern Ireland’s The Troubles. Gerry Adams is seen in video footage shaking hands with the future President after referring to Sinn Féin playing ‘the Trump card.’
With the end of the coronavirus pandemic not in sight, the plunging economy, civil unrest, and confusion over healthcare, the next President of the United States will have enough on their plate to probably even consider Northern Ireland a concerning factor in their administration.
The people of Northern Ireland much like the rest of how the world, will have to wait and see what four more years of a President Trump or the new office of a President Biden will do for them on the international stage.
*Both the Trump/Pence 2020 and Biden/Harris 2020 campaigns were asked for comment for this article, neither responded by the time this article went to press.
Kurtis Reid is a freelance journalist based in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
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