What Biden’s victory means for Northern Ireland

Boris Johnson's dismissal of the new President-elect's concerns suggests that although the US may be moving on from Trumpism, the UK is not

November 11, 2020
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“Mr Biden, a quick word for the BBC?” a reporter asked the President-elect, in a much-shared clip. “The BBC?” He replies, with mock outrage, then a sparkling smile. “I’m Irish!” He laughs and sharply turns into another room.

It is well-known that Joe Biden, who has family ties to counties Derry, Mayo and Louth, is proud of his Irish heritage. And Ireland, it must be said, seems proud of him too. When news of Biden’s victory was finally announced, RTÉ News played a recording of Biden reading Seamus Heaney over a montage of black and white photographs of the President-elect.

In many ways, the new President-elect's personal connection, and the historical solidarity between the Irish and Americans, is a nightmare for Boris Johnson, who has already created a bad impression on the newly elected Biden (and to the Irish, of course). Johnson’s 2016 remarks about Barack Obama’s “part-Kenyan heritage” as the cause of “an ancestral dislike of the British Empire” caused outrage at the time amongst Biden and the rest of the Obama administration. And they have not been forgotten: Biden ally Chris Coons recently suggested that Johnson “reconsider” his remarks.

In this light, Biden’s almost mocking advertisement of his Irish heritage when playfully snubbing the BBC is an interesting affront. While Johnson is known to be proud of the British Empire, such a view of the past is clearly not shared with Biden. With regard to Ireland in particular, Biden has shown support for a bipartisan effort from the US calling on the UK to honour the Good Friday Agreement while negotiating Brexit. Signatories included Peter King, a congressman who has have spoken in favour of the Provisional IRA during the Troubles. As a consequence, pundits like Nigel Farage have called Biden “anti-British.” It is unfortunate that this polarising approach to Northern Ireland, which equates wanting to keep the peace with anti-Britishness, persists.

As such, Johnson’s approach to Brexit discussions, and in particular his intention to rewrite parts of the Good Friday Agreement, was met with horror and indignation. During his campaign trail, Biden warned that “any trade deal between the US and UK must be contingent upon respect for the agreement and preventing the return of a hard border.”

Irish-American support of the Irish Republican cause was highly influential in the resolution of that violence, and the peace process that culminated with the Good Friday Agreement. President Clinton, proud of his own Irish heritage, was instrumental in this reconciliation. Biden now follows in these footsteps, with important implications for Northern Ireland and the Brexit negotiations. With political violence in Northern Ireland still very much a reality, and any hard border a serious risk factor, Biden’s stand feels unlikely to change.

Now Ireland, Republicans in Northern Ireland, and those who fear the implications of a hard border, can call on support from Biden as the UK leaves the EU. It is rumoured that the President-elect may soon visit Ireland, and it is clear that he could be a crucial diplomatic figure in any tensions between the UK, the EU and Northern Ireland.

But will Johnson and his government listen? In response to Biden’s concern, Environmental Secretary George Eustice suggested that the President-elect didn’t fully understand the most recent proposals for Northern Ireland. Despite Biden’s victory, Johnson went ahead with the internal market bill—though it was swiftly vetoed by the House of Lords.

This decision alone suggests that Johnson does not want to back down on his decisions about Northern Ireland, even if they draw scorn from the new American administration and even from Westminster. As Leader of the Opposition Keir Starmer wrote in the Guardian last Sunday: “We will soon have a president in the Oval Office who has been a passionate advocate for the preservation of the Good Friday Agreement. He, like governments across the world, will take a dim view if our Prime Minister ploughs ahead.”

So to what extent will Johnson commit to this hard break? And what will this mean for UK-US relations? If Johnson remains stubborn in pursuing a no deal Brexit in its current form, the UK faces being ostracised from the US, as well as the EU. It could have devastating effects not only for trade, but for peace in Northern Ireland. With that prospect now so immediate, and his options limited, Johnson may find it more straightforward to get support from his own party by drawing up an agreement with the EU that keeps the Good Friday Agreement fully intact and considers other ways to manage the borders more diplomatically.

Such a deal would be closer to Theresa May’s original arrangement. For a Prime Minister, and government, so infamous now for its U-turns, this would not be surprising. So far, however, Johnson's dismissal of the new President-elect suggests that although the US may be moving on from Trumpism, the UK is not.