It was a long day, but a relaxed and convivial one, as President Joe Biden fulfilled four official engagements in Dublin. This was the “work” part of this highly personal visit, sandwiched between the trips to his ancestral homes in Co Louth on Wednesday and Co Mayo on Friday.
Biden began his round of meetings under blue skies at Áras an Uachtaráin – a contrast to the downpour in Co Louth the previous evening – where he met President Michael D Higgins, before traversing the short distance across the Phoenix Park to Farmleigh House, where he held a bilateral meeting with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Then it was on to Leinster House, where he addressed a joint sitting of the Houses of the Oireachtas in an event of high good humour and some self-satisfaction, before rounding off the day with a banquet at Dublin Castle.
There are legitimate questions about the 80-year-old Biden’s age and capacity, especially as he contemplates running for re-election next year, but he skipped his way though the day with obvious delight and no little energy. Perhaps that is one of the messages to take away from this visit.
Three distinct themes were evident across the day, not just in Biden’s speech to the Dáil but in the various exchanges between the leaders and the accounts of the meetings provided by officials afterwards.
The first was how delighted each side was to reinforce the ties between the two countries, rooted in politics and in people but also in commerce and co-operation; kinship and comity is buttressed by a shared outlook and similar founding principles. For Biden this really was a sort of homecoming; holding his hands out and looking towards heaven as he began his remarks to the Dáil chamber, the president began: “Well, mom, you said it would happen.”
Biden was received rapturously by TDs and Senators of all parties who had crammed into the Dáil chamber and the visitors’ gallery with giddy impatience for his address, the fourth delivered by a US president to the Irish legislature. The first was his great hero Kennedy, 60 years ago. Since then the political ties between the two countries have grown immeasurably.
On the Irish side generations of diplomats and politicians have carefully nurtured the relationship with the most powerful country in the world, with all the obvious political and economic benefits; the real achievement has been developing the political and personal relationships in a way that has made the US so eager for the project. The Americans love it. Actually, the whole thing is a massive love-in.
The second theme was to celebrate and promote the peace process in Northern Ireland, not just marking the 25 years since the Belfast Agreement but nudging the North forward into its second quarter century of peace. Of course, the DUP – which is preventing the reviving of the powersharing institutions over continuing objections to the amended Northern Ireland protocol – was not in Dublin to hear Biden speak. But they know his message well enough – that a wave of US investment is waiting for the North once political stability is restored.
The third theme from the day’s events was to emphasise the shared western values of Ireland and the US in a world which has seen the war of autocracy against democracy – as Biden described it in his Dáil address – return to the European landmass and in which the democratic liberal values once thought to be in the unchallengeable ascendant are increasingly under stress.
“Democracy and liberty and the things that we believe are in retreat in large parts of the world, and if it wasn’t for American leadership and if it wasn’t for America and Europe working together, I don’t know what kind of world we would live in,” Taoiseach Leo Varadkar told Biden.
For his part Biden delivered a message that the US understands Ireland’s special position of neutrality, quoting Kennedy who said that Ireland “pursued an independent foreign policy but is not neutral between freedom and tyranny, and it never will be”. In other words the US is happy because it knows whose side Ireland is really on. TDs cheered that one to the rafters.