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Kevin HargadenApril 13, 2023
President Joe Biden speaks with Micheál Martin, Tánaiste of Ireland, left, and Yvonne Keenan-Ross, project manager for Carlingford Heritage Trust and Tourism, during a tour of Carlingford Castle in County Louth, Ireland, Wednesday, April 12, 2023. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Driving home from work on Tuesday evening, my wife saw the flashing blue lights of police motorcycles appear in her rear-view mirror. Although the Dublin road she was on had a 30-kilometer-per-hour speed limit, the motorcycles caught up with her rapidly.

As she made way, pulling her car alongside the cycle-lane, she realized it was a convoy. She estimated 25 coaches and minibuses drove past her, all with the darkened windows that suggest they carried dignitaries. After a moment of confusion, she remembered, “Ah, yeah! The American president is coming to town!”

Since Bill Clinton came over, every U.S. president has made a trip to Ireland. In some cases, they were rapturously received.

Irish people are not used to such shows of state vehicular force. Our police are typically unarmed. Our political leaders are accessible to us. There is a “secret service,” but it is probably nowhere near as important and fearsome as its equivalent in the United States: When you search its name in the main Irish newspaper, you land on a review of a sushi restaurant.

Visits by American presidents are becoming almost commonplace. John F. Kennedy was the first president to cross the Atlantic and make an official visit to Ireland in 1963. Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan also visited. But since Bill Clinton came over, every U.S. president has made a trip to the island at some point during his tenure. In some cases, they were rapturously received. Huge crowds packed into central Dublin to hear President Barack Obama declare that “never has a nation so small inspired so much in another.”

Others received rather less than the proverbial “100,000 welcomes” (“Céad Míle Fáilte”) the Irish are supposed to offer guests. Songs of protest were inspired by Reagan’s visit and a large demonstration greeted President Donald Trump.

The reason for President Biden’s visit is this week’s marking of the 25th anniversary of the Belfast Agreement (commonly known as the Good Friday Agreement). This was the political settlement that brought an end to the Troubles, the almost 30-year-long civil war that waged in Northern Ireland, spilling over at times into the Irish Republic and Great Britain.

The agreement established a power-sharing government in Belfast, led to the creation of a new, more representative police force in the region and created a framework through which a referendum vote could bring about a future unification of Ireland. Although there is a sector of Loyalists who still fiercely oppose the agreement, it has been generally accepted by all sides as a success. While deep divisions persist in society in the north and no one quite wants to describe Northern Ireland as being at peace, there has been a sustained absence of active conflict.

Mr. Biden is here, yes, for a family reunion, but also for serious diplomacy.

The United States played a central role in securing the deal, especially through the facilitation of then President Clinton. But Mr. Biden’s visit is not just a symbolic endorsement of the Good Friday Agreement. The future of the accords has been thrown into doubt by the decision of the United Kingdom to leave the European Union via its Brexit vote, which Northern Ireland firmly opposed.

The demilitarization of the border with the Republic of Ireland was one of the most visible and significant successes of the peace process. With the United Kingdom no longer part of the European Union, this border between the north and south has become an almost intractable problem. There must be freedom of movement to maintain peace per the agreement, but there cannot be freedom of movement to maintain the integrity of the European Union after Brexit. Years of fraught negotiations between London and Brussels has arrived at a complex compromise called the Northern Ireland Protocol.

With this arrangement, Northern Ireland is still legally separate from the European single market, but the free movement of goods is permitted and European Union customs regulations are applied. In many ways, this is a remarkable opportunity for the economically depressed region to serve as the trading hub between the 27 nations of the European Union and the four nations of the United Kingdom.

This compromise was strongly opposed by Unionist political parties. Under new terms agreed this year, concessions have been made to accommodate their concerns, but the deadlock persists. Since 2017, the Northern Irish parliament has rarely been in session. What began as a dispute about the handling of a green energy subsidy scandal was exacerbated by the ambiguities around Brexit and ended in a stubborn standoff between Unionists and the now leading party in Northern Ireland, the pro-unity Sinn Fein. The fear is that without a political breakthrough, the province will slide back into conflict.

Thus, Mr. Biden is here, yes, for a family reunion, but also for serious diplomacy. He was met off the plane in Belfast on Tuesday night, April 11, by the British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, and they met again for coffee on Wednesday morning before Mr. Biden met with local politicians.

While deep divisions persist in society in the north and no one quite wants to describe Northern Ireland as being at peace, there has been a sustained absence of active conflict.

While later on April 12 the president visited his ancestral home in County Louth, the meetings that he took in Dublin were similarly preoccupied with preserving the peace process and underlining how much the United States values its relations with the Irish Republic. On his last day on the island, Mr. Biden plans to visit the Marian shrine at Knock in County Mayo before visiting the home of another forefather in the town of Ballina.

Few visiting dignitaries design a pilgrimage into their itinerary. This open display of his religiosity has been the cause of comment in Ireland.

While once a bastion of Irish Catholicism, the place of the church in Irish society has collapsed over the last generation. One of Ireland’s leading public intellectuals, Fintan O’Toole, used his column in the Irish Times this week to ponder how Mr. Biden’s Catholicism—which seems so characteristically Irish to his compatriots—has come to seem deeply out of place in contemporary Ireland. Whether Mr. O’Toole is telling too simplistic a story can be debated, but the divergence he notes is yet another opportunity for Irish people to consider how rapidly their society has changed.

How do ordinary Irish people feel about all this? The reaction has been muted. A small left-wing political party, People Before Profit, is formally boycotting all official events and has labeled President Biden a “warmonger.” And there has been upset about the callous way that some homeless people were treated in advance of the visit.

But most Irish people seem positively disposed to Mr. Biden himself and grateful for the cause of his visit. The dominant public reaction testifies to another change in Irish society and is reflected in my wife’s annoyance at the disruption in her commute: Ireland is statistically one of the most productive nations in the world—people don’t like having their working day interrupted. The detours forced by security precautions get in the way of doing business. Local news is more concerned about road closures than soaring rhetoric from visiting presidents.

The lasting effect of Mr. Obama’s euphoric reception amounted to a gas station and rest stop named in his honor, which infamously features what must be one of the worst statues of Michelle and Barack Obama ever conceived. Whether Mr. Biden will be blessed with so dubious an honor remains to be seen. But if his visit successfully nudges the Northern Irish parliament back into session and copper-fastens the agreements between the European Union and the United Kingdom, then it may well be one of this presidency’s lasting legacies.

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