Thursday, April 20, 2023

Past and Present

This was given to me by one of these guys, right here. He was a hell of a rugby player. He beat the hell out of the Black and Tans.
 —President Biden speaking of his distant cousin Rob Kearney and confusing the New Zealand rugby team, the All Blacks, with a brutal British military force of a century ago, in Dundalk on April 12
In Belfast this past week, there was a reunion of major figures commemorating the quarter-century anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement (called the Belfast Agreement by Unionists). The hosts were Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, by virtue of being head of government of the United Kingdom of which Northern Ireland is part, and Hillary Clinton, as chancellor of Queen’s University, which hosted the event.

Prominent attendees included former U.S., British and Irish heads of government, Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern, who were key participants in negotiating the agreement credited with ending Northern Ireland’s violent period known as the Troubles. Also on hand was Gerry Adams, whose pivotal role had been to bring the insurgent Provisional Irish Republican Army on board even while ostensibly denying that he had any connection to them.

Tributes and testimonials were paid to key figures no longer with us, including Nobel Peace Prize winners John Hume and David Trimble, major Nationalist and Unionist political leaders of the time who risked everything for peace and whose political parties subsequently paid the price of perpetual exile in the electoral wilderness. Ironically, political benefit was reaped instead by more extreme parties led by Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness, both of whom are also no longer with us.

Particularly inspirational among the guests was former U.S. Senator George Mitchell who, at 89 and in poor health, made the journey to Belfast. He did more than any other outsider to bring the various parties together for the historic accord.

The anniversary exercise was in turns moving, nostalgic, edifying and educational, particularly for a generation that has come of age since those days. It is once again a tricky time in the North—it’s always a tricky time in the North—as the main products of the Good Friday Agreement, the Northern Ireland Assembly and its meticulous power-sharing arrangement, have not functioned for 31 months since it was brought down by the Democratic Unionist Party over unhappiness over the UK implementation of Brexit. Elections were held nearly a year ago which saw, for the first time, saw Sinn Féin overtake the DUP as the largest party, putting Michelle O’Neill in line to become the North’s first ever First Minister.

Despite a new agreement negotiated by Sunak between the UK and the European Union that goes as far as the DUP could realistically hope for, the unionists still refuse to go back into government. Nationalists suspect, not unreasonably, that unionists simply don’t want to go back into a government they would no longer be in charge of.

Many hoped that the DUP would feel pressure to revive the assembly amid all the attention brought about the Good Friday anniversary. Frankly, though, the DUP didn’t get where it is by paying attention to opinions and attitudes outside its own community.

There were hopes that the logjam might be broken during a mid-April visit by President Biden, ostensibly also to commemorate the Good Friday accord. It quickly became apparent, however, that the chief purpose of Biden’s trip was to indulge in a nostalgic plastic-paddy victory lap. He spent the briefest amount of time possible in Northern Ireland, giving a perfunctory speech at Ulster University’s new campus, before heading to the republic for several days of visits to his ancestral homes in Louth and Mayo, bringing along a huge delegation of U.S. government officials and family members, including his sister Valerie and his son Hunter.

At each stop, including an address to the two houses of the Irish parliament (Oireachtas), he gave a variation of the same emotional, rambling speech. There were the obligatory platitudes about peace and the future and doing the right thing, but mostly it was about himself. How much he loved Ireland. How much he missed his mother and wished she could be there. How at home he felt—at least until the last night when he said he couldn’t wait to get back to Delaware.

Everywhere he went, he ran late, partially because of necessary rest breaks but also because he seemed determined to shake every last hand in the country, kiss every baby and pose for every selfie. The fact is, for all his professed love of Ireland, he can’t hold to a candle to what his contemporary Senator Mitchell accomplished 25 years ago when it really mattered.

At one point in his Oireachtas speech, he became somber, saying, “I’m at the end of my career, not the beginning,” adding, “The only thing I bring to this career—and you can see, how old I am—is a little bit of wisdom.”

Biden didn’t sound like someone getting ready for another presidential campaign. By the time he finished the tour in the Mayo town of Ballina, however, with a speech that followed an impressive array of Irish musical talent, he seemed newly energized. Yes, it was more or less the same speech we had heard a couple times before on this trip, but it had more pep this time.

The over-excited Irish press speculated he might actually announce his reelection bid in Ballina. It was amusing to see the country collectively go all fanboy crazy for yet another Irish-American presidential visit. On the ground, though, real people were a bit more measured. They marveled at the vast expense to bring so many people from the U.S. for what amounted to a personal holiday. Even in our own corner of the countryside, we did not escape the roar of the presidential tour in the form of overlying Chinook helicopters.

Perhaps the best example of Mayo practicality came from radio presenter/podcaster Laurita Blewitt, one of the president’s many distant cousins here. Her husband, a well known sports pundit, recounted her exchange with Biden during a banquet in Dublin Castle.

In his usual impulsive manner, the unfailingly affable president said to her, “Laurita, you guys have gotta come with us to Knock [Roman Catholic pilgrimage site in Mayo] on Air Force One tomorrow.”

Her reply: “I can’t. I have to get my hair done in Foxford at 11 am.”