Is the US-UK relationship imperiled by Joe Biden’s deep affection for Ireland, which is furious with the UK over Brexit? Superficially, at least, Boris Johnson has some reason to be concerned.
First, the argument goes, there are those unfortunate comments Johnson made in his journalistic days about Barack Obama and Biden’s ancestral Irish hatred for English toffs. Then there is Biden’s heavy criticism of the implications for Northern Ireland of the Internal Market Bill, and the fact that, after his conversation with the Prime Minister last week, Biden’s camp made much of his reaffirmation of support for the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, while Downing Street didn’t mention it. The Irish government also reported that, after Biden’s subsequent chat with Taoiseach, Micheál Martin, the two men “discussed the importance of a Brexit outcome that respects the GFA and ensures no return to a border on the island of Ireland.”
At a time when Northern Ireland shops fear food shortages because the EU wants checks on shipments from Britain post-Brexit in order to prevent a hard border with the Republic, is Biden likely to use a putative US-UK trade deal to back the EU negotiating position?
As Joe would suggest himself, I think we should all calm down.
It is true that Biden is intensely loyal to Obama and that many of his Irish American campaign group cherish a view of Irish history as a struggle for freedom from the Brits by the Most Oppressed People Ever and like to represent Johnson as a stupid and heartless British Trump. It is also true that even by Irish-American hyper-sentimental standards, Biden has a deep romantic attachment to his Irish roots. “Northeast Pennsylvania will be written on my heart,” he wrote to Ancestry.com in 2016, just before his official visit to Ireland to honour the centenary of the 1916 rising. “But Ireland will be written on my soul.”
We Irish are utterly superb at presenting an immensely attractive version of our story, much enhanced by superb poetry which can be raided for suitable quotes to suit almost every occasion. In speeches about a range of issues in places that have included Bombay, Brussels, Istanbul, Munich and Singapore, in addition to America and Ireland, Biden has quoted a slightly mangled version of WB Yeats’s “All changed, changed utterly. A terrible beauty is born.” He is also partial to Seamus Heaney’s desire that “hope and history” may “rhyme” – lines so overused since Clinton first produced them to hail the Belfast Agreement as to make assiduous followers of Irish politics want to block their ears every time they see them coming.
Relatives in Ballina, County Mayo, which Biden visited in 1916, have begun their preparations for his hotly expected state visit to Ireland by commissioning a mural of him in the main square where Biden will be mobbed by everyone, including relatives and canny shopkeepers. Folksy Joe will be warmed and welcomed and will quote Yeats again, but that’s about it. He’s a pragmatic deal-maker. Not an ideologue.
He’s also not a hater. He tries to find common ground with everyone and will already have been charmed by Boris’s nice Etonian manners and been reassured that no more than the Irish government does the British government want to see any disruption to peace in Northern Ireland. I’d be astounded if Boris hadn’t crooned about the contribution Democratic presidents of the past made to the sacred Agreement and how they can discreetly help to resolve what are just short-term problems.
Biden has been around for a very long time and will have known that calling the British Prime Minister before any of his European counterparts would be viewed as extremely significant. He and his team will have grasped that a Biden administration would have much in common with the UK when it comes to huge issues like climate change, Covid-19, the urgency of economic recovery and the threat to democracy posed by China, Russia and Silicon Valley.
More than most Irish politicians, Micheál Martin, an historian, understands that the greatest enemy to peace in Ireland is Sinn Fein. He has a genuine desire to resolve differences of opinions with Unionists and the British government.
This is a time to call on another Irish poet, Derek Mahon, who died recently. Start believing his “Everything is Going to be All Right”.