Biden backs Northern Ireland peace in virtual Saint Patrick’s Day talks

US President Joe Biden participates in a virtual bilateral meeting with Ireland's Prime Minister Micheal Martin in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, DC, USA, 17 March 2021. [Pool/EPA/EFE]

President Joe Biden expressed support for the Northern Ireland peace agreement in the face of Brexit-related tensions when he met Ireland’s prime minister Micheál Martin for virtual Saint Patrick’s Day celebrations Wednesday (17 March).

It’s “strongly critical to maintain” the accord, Biden told Martin over video link.

Separately, a senior aide said the US government would not take sides in a UK-EU rift over movement of goods to the British-ruled province.

The future of the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland following Britain’s chaotic exit from the European Union was one of the more serious topics in the bilateral session.

But Biden, who is only the second Roman Catholic president in US history and proud of his Irish ancestry, also placed plenty of focus on Saint Patrick’s Day.

Biden began by attending early Mass at a church in his hometown of Wilmington, Delaware before making the trip back to Washington for his long-distance get-together.

Fountains at the White House were colored green and the famous building itself will be lit up in Ireland’s national color after dark.

As in every year since 1952, the meeting included a presentation of shamrocks — small sprigs of clover that symbolize Ireland. An engraved bowl containing the gift was on prominent display in the Oval Office.

“We are determined to fully celebrate the holiday,” a senior Biden administration official told reporters.

Biden, wearing shamrock in his suit jacket’s handkerchief pocket, had instructed staff to arrange things “as close to the way” they would be if the meeting with Martin was being held in person, the official said.

Biden told Martin he wanted to “celebrate the deep, deep affection Americans have, particularly Irish Americans, for Ireland.”

“It feels strange to have to celebrate apart,” Martin said, expressing hope that by next year they’d be back to visiting each other.

Peace agreement worries 

Biden and the Irish leader were touching base on the coordination of efforts to get the global economy back on track through mass coronavirus vaccinations and a “sustainable” recovery, the US administration official said.

The Irish prime minister also heard Biden’s support for the Good Friday Agreement, which largely ended decades of violent unrest in the British province of Northern Ireland.

“The United States and Ireland are unequivocally committed to the Good Friday Agreement…, which has been the bedrock of peace, stability, and prosperity in Northern Ireland,” the two leaders said in a joint statement.

There is concern in Washington that a post-Brexit row between London and the EU over customs controls on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland is threatening the complex political balance underpinning the deal.

EU launches lawsuits against UK over Irish border

The EU launched legal proceedings against Britain on Monday (15 March), alleging that London had broken a protocol of its Brexit divorce agreement covering Ireland.

“President Biden has been unequivocal in his support for the Good Friday Agreement… not (to) become a casualty of Brexit,” the US administration official said.

Biden “encourages both sides to continue prioritizing economic and political stability,” the official said.

As for the border issue, “we view that as a trade issue to be resolved between the UK and the EU,” the official said.

Martin thanked Biden for “unwavering support for the Good Friday Agreement” and said “I want to move forward with a positive relationship with the United Kingdom.”

The Biden administration viewed the rift as a trade issue to be resolved between Britain and the EU, and would not take sides, a senior administration official said before the meeting.

British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab weighed in on the debate Wednesday when he told the Aspen Security Forum that the European Union needs to “live up to their commitments” in not risking the “integrity” of the trading set-up between Northern Ireland and the rest of Britain.

“Let’s take the heat out of that and let’s resolve it on a pragmatic basis,” he said.

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