Joe Biden will discuss Northern Ireland’s economic potential with Rishi Sunak in Belfast on Wednesday, but the US president’s short trip highlighted the fact that the UK prime minister’s new Brexit deal has failed to end the region’s political logjam.
The meeting between the two leaders, to mark the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, takes place just months after the UK and EU clinched the so-called Windsor framework, a deal on post-Brexit trading arrangements in Northern Ireland.
The Good Friday Agreement ended three decades of conflict in Northern Ireland and established a power-sharing executive. But the region’s biggest unionist party has boycotted the political institutions for nearly a year in a row over Brexit that the Windsor framework has failed to fix.
Amanda Sloat, senior director for the US National Security Council, said the meeting would be an opportunity for the two leaders “to discuss the tremendous progress that has been made here in Northern Ireland, as well as how the US can continue working . . . to be a partner for peace and to support continued economic development in Northern Ireland”.
As he left Washington on Tuesday, Biden told reporters his priority was to “make sure the Irish accords and the Windsor agreement stay in place”.
The White House said Biden would “have the opportunity to engage with each of the leaders of Northern Ireland’s five main political parties” ahead of his speech at Ulster University on Wednesday afternoon.
Sloat emphasised that the White House would “like to see the devolved institutions back up and running”.
The UK government had hoped the Windsor agreement would pave the way for power-sharing to be restored at Stormont ahead of Biden’s visit. But analysts said the political stalemate in the region was an “embarrassment”.
“Politics is dead or dormant in Northern Ireland, there is no local power-sharing and an American president can’t gloss over that fact,” said Jon Tonge, politics professor at the University of Liverpool.
Wednesday’s meeting will be the third in-person sit-down for the two leaders since Sunak became prime minister last year. They are also set to meet at the G7 in Japan in May and in Washington in June.
Sloat told reporters that she “did not anticipate” that Biden and Sunak would discuss the possibility of a trade agreement between the US and the UK in Belfast but added the June meeting would provide an opportunity for a “longer” conversation about “economic issues”.
After speaking at Ulster University, Biden will travel to Dublin for several days of engagements in the Republic of Ireland, including a retracing of the Irish-American president’s ancestry.
The relative brevity of his trip to Northern Ireland has raised questions among some in the UK about Biden’s commitment to Britain.
Baroness Arlene Foster, a former DUP first minister, said this week that Biden “hates the UK”.
Foster told GB News: “The fact that he’s come here won’t put any pressure on the DUP at all — quite the reverse actually, because he’s seen by so many people as pro-republican and pro-nationalist.”
Sloat rejected Foster’s comments, saying: “The record of the president shows that he’s not anti-British. The president has been very actively engaged throughout his career . . . in the peace process in Northern Ireland.
“President Biden obviously is a very proud Irish-American. He is proud of those Irish roots,” she added. “But he is also a strong supporter of our bilateral partnership with the UK.”