Letter from Dublin: Biden and the Irish exchange expressions of affection

Every year Irish politicians joke that in America St. Patrick’s Day lasts at least a week. This year, it seemed closer to two months.  Ireland dominated the agenda of senior American policy makers in March and April with three, weeklong events: The annual St Patrick’s pilgrimage of Irish political leaders to America; a four-day visit by President Biden to Ireland; and a politically star-studded 25th Anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement conference in Belfast. The year 2023 was the culmination of decades of effective Irish diplomacy and a signal of a profound realignment of American priorities.

St Patrick’s Day (Week)
Celebrations in the US were highlighted by parades, breakfasts, concerts, and dinners in Boston, New York, Chicago, and Washington DC. Politicians, power brokers, investors, philanthropists, the “great and the good” from both countries, mingled and toasted each other in Hibernian goodwill. No other country of any size monopolizes the American political establishment like Ireland does in March, every March. After years of Covid restrictions, this was especially true in 2023. The week has become an entrenched American tradition in part because Ireland is one of the only issues that unites American politicians from both parties.

Joe Biden visits Ireland
The president’s trip to Ireland was his longest out-of-country visit during his tenure to date, and his host was the smallest foreign country to welcome him. What makes this extraordinary investment of time even more stunning is that there were no pressing matters to discuss. Ireland and the US are in broad agreement on all of the major issues of the day: Ukraine, climate change, and the ongoing peace process. There was no G7 or NATO meeting scheduled with a side visit to Ireland added to the itinerary. JFK’s Irish visit came after his historic speech to partitioned Berlin. Obama’s less-than-24-hour-stay in Ireland was en route to a four-day state visit to the UK. This time, Joe Biden’s sole mission was to visit Ireland – north, south, east, and west – in a heartfelt expression of affection, admiration, and wishes for the continued flourishing of the Irish-American relationship.

Support for the Good Friday Agreement on its 25th anniversary provided a good enough reason for the timing.  Northern Ireland’s devolved government is currently in limbo due to a DUP boycott of Stormont, but the president had just met with all of the Irish and Northern Irish leaders in D.C. The visit was not driven by a crisis but rather by Biden himself.
This was my first time witnessing a US presidential visit to a foreign country at close range and it is nothing short of a logistical marvel to behold. The week before the president’s arrival there were signs of what was to come: a Chinook helicopter and Marine One practiced above our Dublin neighborhood. Helicopters are still a rarity here and seeing the huge double-rotor variety circling above was impressive. A few minutes later, a friend in Louth sent a video of the helicopters landing at a GAA pitch in Cooley. Bulky, suited men with short haircuts and earpieces seemed to sprout around Dublin like dandelions in the spring.

Air Force One landed in Belfast on April 11 and the president was greeted by British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. Northern Ireland is still his country (at least for now), and protocol demands his presence at the arrival of a foreign head of state. A cavalcade of 50 vehicles accommodated the president, the secretary of state, support teams, and the press corps.  A morning address at Ulster University was followed by a short flight to Dublin, where a duplicate motorcade awaited him. Lashing rain and wind canceled the helicopter ride to Louth in favor of a motorcade to visit Carlingford and a televised speech to family members in a Dundalk pub. Back in Dublin, Biden visited Ireland’s beloved 81-year-old president, Michael D. Higgins, for embraces, storytelling, ringing the peace bell, planting a tree, quoting Irish poets, and admiring Higgins’s magnificent dogs. A formal meeting with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and an address to a joint sitting of the Parliament were followed by a state dinner at Dublin Castle.  Live TV coverage continued.

The next day, the president flew to Mayo where he started by visiting Knock Shrine, where he had a chance encounter with Fr. Frank O’Grady, who spent most of his clerical career as a chaplain in the US military before he was reassigned to Knock two years ago.  Biden immediately recognized him – he had administered last rites to Beau Biden at Walter Reed Medical Center in 2015 – and the president’s emotional reaction was another example that in Ireland, the journey from tears to joy and back again can be a short one.  As Biden said more than once on his trip: “That’s the Irish in it,” or as Patrick Kavanagh wrote: “You are as well as to sing sorrow as to cry it. The maxim, or whatever it was, worked both ways for here the people cry joy.’

The president delivered a moving nationally televised outdoor address to throngs of admirers at the foot of a church built with bricks provided by one of his Blewitt ancestors in the 1820s. Prior to the speech, a spectacular rainbow framed the scene while The Chieftains sang their last-ever concert. Then, amid the cheers, a helicopter took the President back to Air Force One and he was gone as if it had all been a dream. Joe did not want to leave. Ireland did not want to let him go.  The defining trauma of Irish history, the separation and loss of emigration, was played out in dramatic pantomime: The beloved son is forced to make the dreaded departure to America, with a tear in his eye and a promise to return.
The coverage of the visit on Irish TV, radio, and newspapers was wall-to-wall. Since the visit I have tried without success to imagine any visitor to the USA (alive or dead) who could positively transfix the attention of the American public. The Queen of England? The Dalai Lama? Abraham Lincoln?  Elvis?  I think not. The Irish, even the leaders of Irish political parties whose debates are often acrimonious, were nearly unanimous in their one hundred thousand welcomes, and their praise for the Irish-American relationship and President Biden.

The Good Friday Agreement: A conference celebrates 25 years
Before the country could catch its breath, a three-day event celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement began. It was a privilege to attend the conference hosted by Queen’s University Belfast and to hear the reflections of many of the key players in Irish, Irish American, Northern Irish, British, and European public life over the last fifty years.

Space does not permit a listing of all of the distinguished speakers and panelists who attended but a short list includes Bertie Ahern, Tony Blair, both Clintons, George Mitchell, Gerry Adams, Mary Robinson, Mary McAleese, Ursula von Der Leyen, Chief Protocol Negotiator Maros Sefcovic, Marylou McDonald, Michelle O’Neill, Naomi Long, Congressman Richie Neal, Joe Kennedy III, Ambassador Claire Cronin, Mark Durkan, Micheål Martin, Leo Varadkar, Rishi Sunak, Chris Heaton Harris, and Monica McWilliams among others.

Tributes to John Hume and David Trimble, speeches, panel discussions, and other contributions were inspiring. This was most true of Senator George Mitchell, who had not appeared in public for three years due to his ongoing treatment for leukemia. Now in his 90th year, Mitchell rallied to speak and to unveil a bronze bust in his likeness on campus.  Even ailing President Jimmy Carter, whose interventions in the ‘70s started US Presidential involvement in Northern Irish affairs, made a final contribution by staying alive.  His admission into hospice care just days before Biden’s visit worried organizers that his imminent death might cancel the president’s visit and/or the GFA Conference but, thank God, Jimmy hung in. The central theme of the conference was “Prosperity.” Pressure on the DUP to return to power sharing was also gently but consistently applied.  “Real leaders know when to say ‘yes.’” stated Northern Ireland Secretary Heaton-Harris.

Three reasons why Ireland held the spotlight
The world is currently gripped by wars, crises, and catastrophes in Ukraine, Sudan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Iraq, Palestine, by economic headwinds, and by climate breakdown. Some question why tiny, peaceful, and prosperous Ireland was prioritized.  There are multiple reasons.  First, the Irish peace process stands out as a rare example of successful conflict resolution in recent history and shows that human beings and their governments have the capacity to make things better.  After more than 20 years of war, President Biden is eager to return the USA to the role of peacemaker.  Second, Brexit imperiled the peace in Ireland and the USA and EU are determined to bring prosperity to Northern Ireland to protect that peace.  Third, Ireland has the largest global diaspora (80-100 million people) with 40 million Americans claiming Irish heritage. It was sound domestic politics for the president to be seen feted in Ireland before announcing his reelection bid.
The British press and political establishment were mystified and sometimes churlish over the lavish attention paid to Ireland. Like jilted lovers, some conservative UK politicians were offended that Joe Biden chose not to attend King Charles’s coronation. One DUP politician openly accused Biden of “hating the United Kingdom.” In fairness to Biden, no US president has ever attended a coronation.

Special Relationship(s)?
The UK has acted as a bridge to Europe for American business leaders, policy makers, and military for generations. The “special relationship” was deepened by fighting two world wars together, but the context has shifted. Brexit has diminished the UK’s economic and strategic importance.  Long before Brexit, Ireland had emerged as a technology hub in Europe and a preferred destination for both US investment and strategic engagement. As the only English-speaking country in the EU, Ireland will play an ever-larger role in connecting America to Europe. At a practical level, beneath Ireland’s waters lie most of the subsea fiber optic cables that link North America and Europe’s economies. Russian military vessels, seen more frequently in Irish waters, are suspected of conducting reconnaissance for plans to cut the cables in a future conflict. In the age of cyberwarfare, Ireland is more strategically important and is not capable of defending these assets on its own.

Despite Ireland and the USA’s economic, strategic, cultural, diplomatic and electoral importance to each other, close observers worry that radically reduced emigration to the USA will inevitably weaken links. I think the relationship will continue to evolve toward a friendship of equals and become even stronger. One example of the increasingly symbiotic relationship is that 100,000 Americans work for Irish companies in the United States while 400,000 Irish work for American companies in Ireland. Investment goes both ways.

But there is a more fundamental reason that the bonds will long endure: love. When Joe Biden, Bruce Springsteen, Garth Brooks, George Mitchell, or Dolly Parton professes their love for Ireland, they are sincere.  Irish people are less open with such emotions, but the feeling is mutual. Like all human relationships, the Irish-American friendship is complex. Each friend sees in the other qualities they wish they had in larger supply.  The brash, optimistic, overconfidence of Americans and the self-effacing, fatalistic humility of the Irish are improved by each other.

Love is also accompanied by an unspoken desire for reciprocity. President Biden loves Ireland, but he also loves to be loved by Ireland. With Republican brinkmanship to the end on the debt ceiling and intransigence on gun control, who can blame him? In a similar way, the Irish value American approval: A moment of political arrival for any taoiseach is the shamrock bowl visit to the Oval Office in March, and before triumphant tours in the US turned them into stars back home, U2 was an opening act for Aslan, and the Cranberries were a little-known gig band.   Maybe James Joyce had it right:
“Love loves to love love.”