The President flaunts his Irish descent, but is blind to the truth about the EU’s imperialistic Protocol
Published: 10 June 2019
Joe Biden is a classic of the type: a man of tenuous Irish descent who loudly declaims his Irishness yet clearly has little experience or understanding of the country, its history or inhabitants. Among his worst habits is reverentially and irritatingly quoting the same few lines of Yeats and Seamus Heaney at every opportunity. The US President has been at it again this week. Somewhat undiplomatically, on his arrival in the UK, he recited part of WB Yeats’s poem Easter, 1916 – about the Easter Rising – in a speech at RAF Mildenhall.
The Irish Catholic nationalist tradition and its vibrant oral culture is certainly seductive. But it is hard to tell whether Biden’s Irish shtick is just a politically useful part of his “folksy Joe” routine or whether he really has swallowed whole a fashionable version of Irishness that effortlessly incorporates leprechauns and freedom fighters, poets and comedians.
Either way, he is rapidly becoming the most influential proponent of a self-mythology that sees the Irish people as both the most oppressed in the world yet also the most entertaining.
By the time Biden was old enough to flaunt his Irishness (based on the nationality of two of his eight great-great-grandfathers), the massive contribution to the United States of immigrant Ulster Scots warriors, administrators and politicians had been forgotten and the narrative of Ireland as a victim of British oppression reigned almost unchallenged. This was helped by the success of Irish writing, pubs and music in promoting Brand Ireland, a remarkable unofficial PR exercise that resulted in many Irish-Americans, Biden included, exclusively taking their Irish politics from Dublin.
In the process of painting the British in Northern Ireland as jackbooted oppressors – an image that greatly and tragically helped the IRA’s prolific stateside fundraising efforts – the Dublin narrative also served to relegate Ulster’s unionist majority to an afterthought at best.
Like many Americans, Biden seems to have little clue about the role the Unionist community once played in turning Northern Ireland into the most prosperous part of the island of Ireland or of the hurt and damage they suffered as a consequence of armed republicanism.
This one-sided view has had dire consequences for his approach to Brexit and specifically the Northern Ireland Protocol. Like many Irish Catholics he loves the idea of the EU and cannot see its imperialistic and autocratic instincts. Like many in America, he is all too willing to accept the Dublin version of the facts as the whole, unbiased story.
Having little knowledge of or sympathy for unionists, Biden seems to be incapable of understanding why they feel threatened by what they see as the weaponisation of the Irish border to punish Britain. Nor does he seem either willing or able to appreciate just what an outrage the Northern Ireland Protocol’s attempt to dismember the UK really is.
He would be wise to reflect on the contrasting examples set by the nationalist John Hume and the unionist David Trimble. Jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement that brought to an end three decades of violence initiated and driven by the IRA, Hume – true to the romantic Catholic tradition – gave a verbose speech full of vaulting, utopian rhetoric that quoted (who else?) WB Yeats.
Meanwhile, Lord Trimble’s intelligent analysis of the fundamental cultural differences that divided Northern Irish nationalists and unionists drew inspiration from figures who spanned political divides and included a warning that could have been tailor-made for the US President: “I believe that a sense of the unique, specific and concrete circumstances of any situation is the first indispensable step to solving the problems posed by that situation.”
Despite his soothing words in Cornwall yesterday, Biden’s views on Northern Ireland may now be more extreme even than the Dublin government’s, which has a thoughtful and well-informed Taoiseach who cares about the stability of the Province.
Does Joe Biden even know that his support for the Protocol might unwittingly help Yeats’s “rough beast” to be born again?