For all the softly softly approach, Biden’s message on restoring Assembly was clear

US president played down his Irishness but emphasised role of Ulster-Scots in foundation of US in a carefully calibrated Belfast speech

From balcony perched on top of balcony, the students and staff of Ulster University (UU) looked down on the US president, Joe Biden.

Their numbers dwarfed the approximately 100 invited guests who waited below for Biden’s arrival, including not just the leaders of the North’s five largest political parties and the northern secretary, Chris Heaton-Harris, but also civic leaders including the head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, Jayne Brady; the Chief Constable, Simon Byrne; and Peter Sheridan, the head of Co-operation Ireland. Business representatives, young people and figures including artist Colin Davidson and actor and Oscar winner James Martin were also there.

Mingling among them ahead of the event was the US special economic envoy, Joe Kennedy III, on what is his first visit to Northern Ireland; he will stay on here after the president has departed, for discussions aimed at fostering the economic dividend that has been at the heart of Biden’s trip.

He was part of the warm-up act: “We believe in Northern Ireland. We believe in you. We believe in your future,” Kennedy told the crowd.


At the front, there was a brief kerfuffle; the presidential seal emerged from what was presumably its travelling bag and was affixed to the front of the podium. The crowd held its breath.

The president was introduced by young entrepreneur and recent graduate Gabrielle Feenan and spoke briefly to her when he took the stage. “I told Gabrielle that when she is the leading public figure in this country, and I show up, promise you won’t say ‘Joe, who is that…?’ Remember me, okay?”

Those watching from above leaned forward, their faces rapt with attention; when the president later turned to address them directly, they waved back.

Beforehand, the president’s speech had been signalled as a reflection on the achievements of the Belfast Agreement, and an exhortation to build on its gains and boosts to the economy.

This was all achieved, he said, by weaving from an acknowledgment of the losses of the Troubles – “the empty chair at the dining room table, the hole in the heart that is never filled” – and the “overwhelming joy” of 1998 to the “incredible economic opportunity which is just beginning, I promise you”.

Northern Ireland, he said, had the potential to more than triple its gross domestic product, with “scores” of major economic corporations “wanting to come here, wanting to invest”. Kennedy will, he said, lead a trade delegation of American companies later this year.

This commitment, he said, was underscored by his own personal interest in Northern Ireland, and that of the American people, who were “with you every step of the way, it’s real… there is a large population that is invested in what happens here.”

All boxes were ticked; this was a carefully calibrated speech in which the US president played down his Irishness and instead emphasised the English side of his family and the role of Ulster-Scots in the foundation of the United States.

It meant that, when he came to deliver his message about the Assembly, he was able to do so “as a friend” and, for all the softly-softly approach, his words were clear.

“I believe the democratic institutions established by the Good Friday [Belfast] Agreement remain critical for the future of Northern Ireland… I hope the Assembly and the executive will still be restored.”

But, said Biden, “that’s a judgment for you to make, not me. I hope it happens.”

The politics of Biden's visit

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Afterwards, the reaction every journalist wanted to hear was that of the DUP; party leader Jeffrey Donaldson was pleased not just at the US president’s references to his “British ancestry” and the role of the Ulster Scots, but also that he had not been presumptuous.

As in his speech, in their brief conversation earlier “he made clear that it’s not his job to take decisions for political leaders in Northern Ireland, but the United States stands ready to support Northern Ireland in whatever way it can”.

There was never any expectation that the brief visit of the US president to the North would resolve the political stalemate. Donaldson reinforced this: “It doesn’t change the political dynamic in Northern Ireland.”

He told reporters the DUP intends to go back to the UK government on the Windsor Framework, which it believes “needs to go further in terms of protecting Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom… that’s what needs to happen now to enable us to move towards the restoration of the political institutions.”

In the days ahead, there will be other dynamics to be considered. Though the meeting between Biden and the UK prime minister, Rishi Sunak, and their affirmation of the relationship between the two countries, may have helped, there have been some tensions behind the scenes over the visit.

The UK had hoped for a longer trip which would have included Great Britain, or a visit to King Charles’s coronation in May; the White House’s reference to the trip as a visit to “the United Kingdom and Ireland” is believed to be an attempt to smooth relations between the two countries.

It was noticeable on Wednesday that Sunak was not in the audience for the president’s speech – which felt surprising given his eagerness to meet Biden on his arrival in Belfast the night before – and was instead carrying out other engagements.

That said, it is worth noting that protocol could have been a factor, and simply timing; it would have been diplomatically difficult for him to mark the 25th anniversary of the agreement without an Irish counterpart, and it is understood this is due to happen at the Queen’s University conference on the agreement next week.

The major disappointment of the visit, the lack of an address at Stormont, was a casualty of the continued political stalemate.

Previously, the working assumption had been that the Assembly would be back up and running in time for the anniversary. Though sources argued it was due to logistics, the trip was scaled back when it was clear Good Friday was going to come and go without a breakthrough, and it was clear the optics of the US president addressing an empty building were unappealing.

Yet, as politician after politician emphasised, simply to have him visit Northern Ireland at all was positive, and so it proved; above all, it was a reminder of the privileged place Northern Ireland holds in the heads and hearts of the US people, and its president.

One wonders how many of the students smiling down from the balcony gave a moment’s thought to the mothballed Stormont as they listened to Biden praise the futures they have in entrepreneurship or business – opportunities this visit will only help to grow.