Friday, March 10, 2023

By David Young, PA

White House officials have visited Belfast in advance of a potential trip by US president Joe Biden next month.

It is understood officials and members of the Secret Service arrived in Northern Ireland last weekend to scope possible venues for a presidential visit.

The officials have also toured sites in Dublin and elsewhere in the Republic as part of planning for a multiple-destination visit to the island of Ireland, the PA news agency understands.

While no dates for a visit have been finalised, there is an expectation that a trip, if confirmed, would take place in April, given that is the month when Northern Ireland marks the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement peace deal.

US vice president visit to Ireland
Joe Biden delivered a speech at Dublin Castle when he visited Ireland as vice president (Niall Carson/PA)

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar will meet Mr Biden in Washington DC next week as part of the annual St Patrick’s programme of events in the US capital.

Political leaders from Northern Ireland will also be in Washington next week.

That could potentially be the juncture when a presidential visit to the island of Ireland is confirmed and announced.

Former US president Bill Clinton and his wife and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are already expected in Belfast next month for events to commemorate the landmark accord that largely ended the Troubles.

Other key figures involved in securing the deal are also due to travel to the city.

A visit by Mr Biden to Northern Ireland to mark the Good Friday deal has long been anticipated, but there has been speculation that it might not materialise if the powersharing impasse at Stormont is ongoing in April.

The DUP is blocking the operation of the institutions created by the Good Friday deal in protest at Brexit’s Northern Ireland Protocol.

The party is currently deliberating on whether to accept a new UK/EU deal on post-Brexit trading arrangements for Northern Ireland – the Windsor Framework – and return to Stormont.

Clinton presented with Chatham House Prize
Bill Clinton is expected to travel to Belfast with wife and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in April (Yui Mok/PA)

It is understood that the devolution impasse will not be a determining factor for US officials planning the potential visit by Mr Biden.

The president has a deep affection for his Irish ancestry and a visit to the island has always been on the cards since his election.

Paraphrasing James Joyce, one of his favourite Irish writers, Mr Biden once wrote that north-east Pennsylvania would be written on his heart when he dies but “Ireland will be written on my soul”.

His Irish Catholic heritage is not only a source of intense pride, but it also frames much of his political backstory.

The number of times Joyce and other Irish literary greats, such as Seamus Heaney and William Butler Yeats, find their way into his speeches is apparently somewhat of a running joke in Washington.

Mr Biden is also fond of quoting Irish phrases and sayings that have been handed down through generations of his family.

He can trace his ancestry to Ireland’s west and east coasts, specifically Ballina in Co Mayo and the Cooley Peninsula in Co Louth.

His great-great-grandfather Owen Finnegan emigrated to the United States from the Cooley peninsula while another great-great-grandfather Patrick Blewitt was born in Ballina, leaving during the Irish famine in 1850 to sail to America.

Distant relatives celebrated his election win in November 2020 and gathered again in January 2021 to mark his inauguration.

Champagne corks were popped, cakes were baked and a huge mural of the 46th president was painted on a wall in Ballina.

The affection is reciprocated and prior to becoming president, Mr Biden had visited both counties in recent years to meet long-lost cousins.

Any visit to Ireland as president would be anticipated to include aspects related to his ancestry.

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