Joe Biden vows to use Northern Ireland trip to ‘keep the peace’

US president Joe Biden said he would use his trip to Northern Ireland to help “keep the peace” and leverage the benefits of a post-Brexit trade deal as the region marks the 25th anniversary of the agreement that ended three decades of conflict.

Ahead of his departure to Belfast on Tuesday, the president talked about lasting stability in the region. He emphasised the importance of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which was brokered by the US, and the Windsor framework, the new UK-EU accord covering Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit trade rules.

Air Force One landed at 9.20pm and a relaxed-looking Biden emerged, to spend several minutes smiling and talking to UK prime minister Rishi Sunak on the tarmac despite wind and rain.

Joe Kennedy III, whom Biden has appointed as special envoy to foster investment in the region, was by the president’s side as he chatted for about 10 minutes with Sunak.

The power-sharing executive at Stormont, established under the peace deal, has been on hold for nearly a year because of objections by the Democratic Unionist party, the largest unionist grouping, to post-Brexit trade rules for Northern Ireland.

Biden had said his priority was to “make sure the Irish accords and the Windsor Agreement stay in place, keep the peace”, adding: “That’s the main thing.”

Sir Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern, who as UK prime minister and Irish taoiseach, respectively, were central to securing the 1998 accord, agreed on Tuesday that fresh impetus was needed to try to end the impasse in the still deeply divided region. “I think if we do it in the right way, the involvement of the American president is positive,” Blair said.

But Blair and Ahern stressed that no change to the landmark deal could happen without approval from Northern Ireland’s traditional nationalist and unionist communities.

“We don’t have the executive up and running and we want that,” Blair told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. “The agreement should be reviewed over time. The only thing is if you’re going to review it, whatever comes out of the review will only work if it brings the communities together.”

Republicans take part in a traditional Easter Tuesday commemoration in Belfast marking the anniversary of the Easter Rising © Chris J Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

Speaking to BBC Radio Northern Ireland’s The Nolan Show, Ahern said the Good Friday Agreement was “always open to review” but cautioned: “[The parties] have to agree on it, of course, which is not always easy.”

However, Blair noted: “One thing I learned about unionists is that if you try to pressurise them to do something that they’re fundamentally in disagreement with, it’s usually futile pressure even if it comes from the US.”

Sunak has urged the DUP to return to Stormont, but the party says more changes are needed to protect Northern Ireland’s place in the UK.

Chris Heaton-Harris, UK Northern Ireland secretary, said at the weekend he was “absolutely sure” the DUP could be brought onside.

Biden, a proud Irish-American, will use his trip to promote Northern Ireland’s “vast economic potential”, the White House said.

After his short stay in Northern Ireland, Biden will travel to Dublin for a longer visit to the Republic of Ireland.

Streets in Belfast have been shut and there is a high police presence after the region’s terror threat level was raised to “severe” last week.

The president will inaugurate an Ulster University campus on Wednesday. Deirdre Heenan, a professor of social policy at the university, said the £350mn site in a formerly rundown area “is a reflection of our aspiration and our hope — what better place for him to come?”

Monday’s anniversary of the deal’s signing was marred by masked youths throwing petrol bombs at a police van in Londonderry, also known as Derry, highlighting lingering tensions in areas of high social deprivation.

On Tuesday, police in Northern Ireland’s second-largest city recovered four suspected pipe bombs from a cemetery in the city.

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