The celebration of St Patrick’s Day in the White House on Friday will be far more than an opportunity for President Joe Biden to engage in a bit of sentimental schmoozing about the “old country”: it will symbolise a relationship between Ireland and the United States that is still vital for this country.
There is little doubt that the president’s active encouragement of the UK government and the European Commission to find a compromise to the long-running impasse over the Northern Ireland protocol was crucial to the emergence of the Windsor Framework.
Throughout his political career, Biden has made no bones about his intense pride in his Irish roots and, since he took office, made it clear that as long as the standoff over the protocol continued there was no chance of the UK being able to negotiate its coveted trade deal with the US.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the challenge it posed to the international order, highlighted the need for a renewal of the close relationship between the US and the UK but despite his wide strategic challenges Biden never lost sight of the Irish issue.
[ Northern Ireland protocol deal: New Windsor Framework ensures ‘hard-earned peace’ is preserved, Biden says ]
The president’s acceptance of the invitations from the governments in Dublin and London to visit both parts of Ireland to mark the 25th anniversary of the Belfast Agreement is testament to his commitment. After an amicable and constructive meeting with UK prime minister Rishi Sunak in California on Monday, he announced he had accepted the prime minister’s invitation to visit Northern Ireland. He will do the same at the White House on Friday in response to the invitation from Taoiseach Leo Varadkar to visit the Republic.
While a succession of US presidents have paid close attention to developments here, Ireland has a particular resonance for Biden. Throughout his political career he has flaunted his ancestral pride and memorably, on the night of his election in November 2020, told a BBC journalist “I’m Irish.”
The pride Irish-American politicians take in their ancestry is often dismissed in this country as vote-winning posturing but it is far more than that. Garret FitzGerald recalled in his autobiography that when he asked Ronald Reagan to intervene with Margaret Thatcher at a delicate stage in the negotiations that led to the Anglo Irish Agreement of 1985, the Reagan did so and unblocked an obstacle in the way of agreement.
Reagan’s great domestic political rival, House speaker Tip O’Neill, who also did so much to promote peace in Ireland, recalled that as a small child in Boston he knew he was a Catholic and he knew he was Irish but he didn’t know he was an American until he went to school. Harnessing the widely ingrained sympathy for this country for political purposes has been one of the great achievements of Irish diplomacy since the 1970s.
[ Biden welcomes new protocol deal and urges immediate return to Stormont ]
As president of the United States, Biden has done a remarkable job over the past two years in the face of incessant criticism from political opponents and the media. The conservative media in the US has been downright hostile and much of the liberal media has been little better.
His approach to governing as an old-fashioned Democrat, committed to improving the lot of working people, rather than engaging in the fashionable but pointless squabbles of identity politics, has not endeared him to the liberal media. Going by the polls, he has also struggled to get his message across to the American public but the results of the mid-term elections last November indicate that a sizable segment of the electorate appreciates what he is trying to do.
In his recent state-of-the-union address, Biden pointed to surging job growth and falling inflation, and rightly claimed credit for legislative victories to curb the price of prescription drugs, rebuild the country’s infrastructure and take decisive action on climate change.
“Biden’s speech reminded me of how good a president he has been, especially given what he inherited from the former guy, who made a fetish out of dividing and angering Americans while accomplishing nothing except giving a giant tax cut to big corporations and the rich,” commented former US labour secretary Robert Reich. “Biden has steadied the nation. He has brought competent people into government. He has enacted important legislation. He has fortified America’s alliances against despots like Putin. He has strengthened American democracy.”
[ Biden steals Trump’s clothes in state of the union address ]
Yet in spite of these achievements Biden still struggles to connect with a majority of Americans. When Enda Kenny failed to win an electoral dividend for bringing the Irish economy back from the brink of disaster in the general election of 2016, Biden remarked that if the taoiseach had done a similar job in the US he would have won 80 per cent of the vote.
However, the signs are that voters in the US may be just as unimpressed by economic progress as those in Ireland. Trump has made politics so toxic that Americans are divided as never before and, maybe more crucially, the living standards of ordinary voters have been falling so long that it will take time for the improvements initiated by Biden to take effect. One way or another, though, America and the entire democratic world should thank its lucky stars that he and not Donald Trump is in the White House during these dangerous times.