Joe Biden doesn’t understand Northern Ireland
Joe Biden is a classic of the genre: a man of tenuous Irish descent who loudly proclaims his Irish identity but clearly has little experience or understanding of the country, its history or its people. One of his worst habits is to reverently and irritably quote the same few lines from Yeats and Seamus Heaney on every occasion. The US president got back to it again this week. Not very diplomatically, upon arriving in the UK, he recited part of WB Yeats’ poem Easter, 1916 – on the Easter Rising – in a speech at RAF Mildenhall.
The Irish Catholic nationalist tradition and its vibrant oral culture are certainly appealing. But it’s hard to say if Biden’s Irish shtick is just a politically useful part of his ‘folksy Joe’ routine or if he really swallowed a whole fashionable version of the Irish that effortlessly incorporates goblins and freedom fighters, poets and comedians.
Either way, he is quickly becoming the most influential proponent of an auto-mythology that sees the Irish people as both the most downtrodden in the world and the most entertaining.
By the time Biden was old enough to flaunt his Irish identity (based on the nationality of two of his eight great-great-grandfathers), the massive contribution to the United States from Ulster’s Scottish warriors, administrators and politicians had been forgotten and the narrative of Ireland as a victim of British oppression has reigned almost unchallenged. This was aided by the success of Irish writing, advertising and music in promoting Brand Ireland, a remarkable unofficial public relations exercise that led many Irish-Americans, Biden included, to exclusively withdraw their Irish politician from Dublin.
In the process of portraying the British in Northern Ireland as booted oppressors – an image that greatly and tragically aided the prolific IRA fundraising efforts in the United States – the Dublin narrative also served to relegate the Unionist majority in Ulster at best after the fact.
Like many Americans, Biden seems to have little clue about the role the Unionist community played in transforming Northern Ireland into the most prosperous part of the island of Ireland or about injuries and damage. that it suffered as a result of armed republicanism.
This unilateral view has had disastrous consequences for its approach to Brexit and in particular to the Northern Ireland Protocol. Like many Irish Catholics, he loves the idea of the EU and cannot see his imperialist and autocratic instincts. Like many in America, he is all too willing to accept the Dublin version of the story as a whole and unbiased story.
Having little knowledge or sympathy for trade unionists, Biden seems unable to understand why they feel threatened by what they see as the militarization of the Irish border to punish Britain. He also doesn’t seem willing or able to appreciate how outrageous the Northern Ireland Protocol’s attempt to dismember the UK really is.
It would be wise to reflect on the contrasting examples given by nationalist John Hume and trade unionist David Trimble. Recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for the negotiation of the Belfast / Good Friday Agreement that ended three decades of IRA-initiated and led violence, Hume – faithful to the Romantic Catholic tradition – delivered a speech wordy full of arched utopian rhetoric that quoted (who else?) WB Yeats.
Meanwhile, Lord Trimble’s clever analysis of the fundamental cultural differences that divided Northern Irish nationalists and unionists drew on figures who covered political divisions and included a warning that could have been tailor-made for the president. American: “I believe that a sense of the unique, specific and concrete circumstances of any situation is the essential first step in resolving the problems posed by that situation.
Despite his soothing words in Cornwall yesterday, Biden’s views on Northern Ireland may now be more extreme than those of the Dublin government, which has a thoughtful and knowledgeable Taoiseach who cares about the stability of the province.
Does Joe Biden even know that his backing for the Protocol might unwittingly help Yeats’ “brute beast” be reborn?