President Joe Biden’s recent trip back “home” did not go as smoothly as he may have anticipated.
During his visit to Ireland, particularly to the Irish towns of Dundalk and Ballina, where he claims distant ancestry, Biden made several gaffes and misstatements.
One jaw-dropping example was when he mixed up the New Zealand All Blacks Rugby team with the historically reviled British paramilitary group, the Black and Tans, known for their unscrupulous suppression of the Irish independence movement in the 1920s.
A Freudian slip or an iteration of Biden’s perennial portrayal of the “Stage Irishman”?
Despite his teetotal credentials, Biden unintentionally perpetuates stereotypes of Irish people, portraying them as drunken, garrulous and unhinged:
Early into his presidency at the Vatican he said to Pope Francis, “I’m the only Irishman you’ve met who’s never had a drink.”
While Biden may enjoy playing into these caricatures, known as “paddywhackery” in Ireland, it can be embarrassing for the nation he claims to adore.
Biden’s constant usage of term “the Brits” in reference to the British government when discussing Irish issues has raised concerns among politicians on both sides of the political divide in Northern Ireland.
Sammy Wilson of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) said: “It’s unbelievable and frightening to think this man is the leader of the free world.”
And Naomi Long of the centrist Alliance Party simply said, “Oh dear.”
Such language can be seen as pejorative and insensitive, especially given the delicate peace process in that region.
Biden’s pit stop to Northern Ireland and his swift departure to the Republic of Ireland after a less than an hour-long “bi-latte” with British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, along with limited press engagement, gave the impression of a vacation rather than a diplomatic mission.
This approach is the anthesis of the masterful stroke of diplomacy as practiced by his predecessor Bill Clinton, who reached across both sides of the divide to reach a settlement.
The 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which brought an end to the violence of “The Troubles,” bequeathed both sides of the Irish border a relative peace.
But Brexit has reintroduced tensions related to identity and status among Unionists, those loyal to Britain, and Nationalists, those who want a United Ireland, particularly due to divergent customs arrangements for goods between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
The resulting possibility of border checks on the island has caused discontent among Unionists and has even led to sporadic incidents of violence such as the murder of 29-year-old journalist Lyra McKee by the New IRA.
Just before Biden’s visit, Britain’s internal security force MI5 raised the threat level to “severe” in the region, underscoring the need for effective leadership.
Unfortunately, the current state of post-Brexit political paralysis in Northern Ireland, with the Northern Ireland Assembly unable to convene since February 2022, exacerbates the dearth of leadership.
Biden’s storming off at his British counterpart was seen by some as a desire to address a functioning Stormont Assembly, as Bill Clinton did in 1998.
Biden’s recent visit to Ireland crystallizes his emotional and sentimental connection with Irish-American voters rather than a comprehensive diplomatic agenda.
It’s further amplified by the efforts his Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen led, along with the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, to implement a global corporate tax rate of 15%.
Such a move would severely harm Ireland’s economy, as the country benefits from a low corporate tax rate of 12.5%, attracting multinational firms and generating substantial tax revenue contributing to a meteoric rise in gross domestic product.
Addressing the people of Ballina, Biden said, “The Irish are the only people nostalgic about the future” — yet interfering with Ireland’s tax rates could have severe economic consequences, undermining the progress and stability the country has achieved.
While Biden’s sentimental words about Ireland may resonate with some, it is crucial to follow through with actions that align with those sentiments.
He must prioritize diplomacy and refrain from perpetuating stereotypes.
This writer’s message to Biden is simple: less paddywhackery, more emphasis on diplomacy and respect for Ireland’s economic sovereignty and stability.
Theo McDonald is a journalist in Dublin.