BELFAST: US President Joe Biden will arrive in Belfast Tuesday to launch high-profile commemorations of the 25th anniversary of the deal that brought peace to Northern Ireland.
Biden will be welcomed on the tarmac by British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who is looking to break deadlock in the UK province, where political dysfunction and security concerns threaten to overshadow the historic milestone.
Underlining the threat, masked youths pelted police vehicles with petrol bombs on Monday during an illegal dissident republican march in Londonderry.
Biden is to “mark the tremendous progress” made since the signing of the 1998 Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters ahead of his visit.
The visit will “underscore the readiness of the United States to support Northern Ireland’s vast economic potential to the benefit of all communities”, she added.
Sunak will use Biden’s visit “to celebrate Northern Ireland’s successes and encourage further long-term investment”, according to his Downing Street office.
Biden, who has Irish ancestry, will then travel south on Wednesday to Ireland for a three-day visit, in part tracing his family history.
He will deliver an address to Ireland’s parliament and “celebrate the deep, historic ties” the country shares with the United States, according to the White House.
The speech will be closely scrutinised for any signs of pressure on Sunak to end the current logjam, caused by the Conservative Party’s loyalist allies.
The territory has been significantly reshaped since pro-UK unionist and pro-Irish nationalist leaders struck an unlikely peace deal on April 10, 1998 – Good Friday, two days before Easter – following marathon negotiations.
Brokered by Washington and ratified by London and Dublin, the Good Friday Agreement largely ended three decades of devastating sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland and intermittent attacks on mainland Britain.
The so-called “Troubles” killed more than 3,500 people. They pitted the province’s then-majority Protestant unionists, wanting continued British rule, against Catholic republicans demanding equal rights and reunification with the Republic of Ireland.
But a quarter-century on, post-Brexit trade arrangements and demographic shifts are prompting political instability and violence by dissident republicans.
“While it is time to reflect on the solid progress we have made together, we must also recommit to redoubling our efforts on the promise made in 1998 and the agreements that followed,” Sunak said in a statement marking Monday’s anniversary.
Given his Irish heritage, the issue is close to Biden’s heart.
He will meet Irish President Michael Higgins and Prime Minister Leo Varadkar on Thursday, when he will also take part in peace ceremonies, address the Irish parliament and attend a banquet dinner at Dublin Castle.
During a trip to County Mayo in northwest Ireland on Friday, Biden will visit his ancestral hometown of Ballina and meet distant cousins.
The US president is due to address thousands in the place that his family left in the mid-19th century – when the country was ravaged by famine – before eventually settling in blue-collar Scranton, Pennsylvania.
While a visit of personal significance, it also holds political importance with the 2024 White House race looming and Biden keen to appeal to voters vying for the American dream of immigrant success.
He will head home on Saturday, with Northern Ireland continuing its peace accord commemorations the following week, including a three-day conference starting April 17 hosted by former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton.
Her husband, Bill Clinton, played a pivotal role in securing the 1998 deal as US president from 1993 to 2001.
In the years after 1998, Northern Irish paramilitaries were disarmed, its militarised border was dismantled, and British troops departed. The peace process, however, is perhaps more precarious now than it has been at any point since then.
Power-sharing institutions created by the accords have been paralysed for more than a year over bitter disagreements on post-Brexit trade.
Despite Britain and the European Union agreeing in February to overhaul the arrangements, that new deal – the Windsor Framework – is yet to win the support of the pro-UK Democratic Unionist Party.
It has boycotted Northern Ireland’s devolved government for 14 months over the issue, crippling the assembly, and is showing no sign of returning to power-sharing.
The security situation has also deteriorated, with Britain’s security services last month raising the province’s terror threat level to “severe”.