Biden v Donaldson: DUP set to defy US President in latest phase of Brexit tumult

US President Joe Biden alighted Air Force One on Tuesday evening with Northern Ireland still beset by political stasis. He arrives to deliver a keynote address to mark the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement — a deal US lawmakers patronised and helped broker. But there is no disguising that the key institutional fruit of the GFA, namely Northern Ireland’s power-sharing executive, is stuck in Brexit-induced limbo. 

Biden’s visit comes as the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) continue their year-long boycott of Northern Ireland’s political institutions. The party’s walkout, begun in May 2022 in protest at Boris Johnson’s decision to concede a customs border along the Irish Sea, has meant the Stormont assembly has been suspended for nearly 60 per cent of the past five years. With Rishi Sunak unsuccessful in his bid to shunt unionism back to Stormont with the “Windsor Framework”, there will be a distinct sour quality to Wednesday’s sentimentalities.

Joe Biden, never a fan of Brexit, is set to use his visit to highlight the economic opportunities on offer for Northern Ireland if unionists choose to re-enter the power-sharing institutions established 25 years ago. The Telegraph even reports that Biden will meet leaders from all five of Northern Ireland’s main political parties in a bid to “gently nudge” (as one Biden ally put it over the weekend) the DUP back into the fold.

But here’s the problem: no one expects the DUP — or its leader in Sir Jeffrey Donaldson — to acquiesce to the power of the presidency.

“Whether the president visits or not”, Sir Jeffrey detailed in March, “I have no arbitrary deadline. I am not under any pressure in terms of timelines”. After six years of Brexit psychodrama, the DUP has settled on a familiar strategy: say no and trust nobody. 

Biden v Donaldson

The political reality of an empty Stormont and an unmoving DUP means Joe Biden’s NI visit itinerary has been significantly truncated. There will be no trip to the assembly, no walkabout at any of the many sites memorialising past conflicts and Biden’s meeting with Rishi Sunak is expected to be low-key. It is an opportunity missed for the prime minister, for whom a “special relationship” love-in would have proved politically immensely useful. 

Eight months (and two prime ministers) ago, when UK diplomats first briefed that they were working towards Biden’s GFA anniversary visit as a deadline for restoring power-sharing, the politics was plain. Success would see a triumphant UK PM stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the US president at the steps of Stormont, surrounded by MLAs newly returned to their duties. But today this seems a wild fantasy. One US official, quoted in The New York Times, has joked that Sunak and Biden’s NI summit will be a “bi-latte” rather than a formal bilateral meeting. That Biden will be spending less than a day in Belfast before moving on to the Republic for a lengthy excursion appears a serious snub. 

Still, Biden has made no secret of his support for the prime minister’s Windsor Framework negotiated earlier this year. The US president has praised the agreement as an “essential step to ensuring that the hard-earned peace and progress” of the GFA is “preserved and strengthened”.

Biden’s wholehearted support for the Windsor Framework — Sunak snub notwithstanding — means that his whistle-stop six counties tour will be far from politically lite. Indeed, with the US president dropping his strongest hints yet that he will rerun as President in 2024, the eyes of the world will be looking at his performance in NI as a test of his diplomatic skills. 

The American political system holds in high regard its role in bringing about the Good Friday Agreement. And Biden, as a member of the Senate foreign relations committee when the GFA was signed, claims some personal credit for the US’ involvement in the province’s peace process.

Furthermore, Biden has honed his political pitch as president as a healer and agent of change. After the rigours of Trumpism, Biden’s campaign in 2020 was founded on bipartisan charm, “rational” consensus building and his fastidiousness for rules-based politics. In insisting that an international treaty in the GFA be upheld, Biden is laying down his most familiar calling card. He knows that progress in Northern Ireland might help neutralise a hyper-polarised domestic political scene.

But Biden’s liberal politics of empathy, in which his Irish ancestry and Catholicism function as touchstones, has at times raised eyebrows in Northern Ireland’s unionist community. 

Back in 1994, Biden personally urged then-president Bill Clinton to grant Sinn Féin leader, Gerry Adams, a visa to visit the US in a bid to help the peace process. Years later while serving as Barack Obama’s vice-president, he sparked a transatlantic storm by joking to then Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny: “If you are wearing orange, you are not welcome here”. It was a reference to the Protestant Orange Order which counts DUP MPs among its number.

The unionist backlash to Biden’s perceived nationalist affinities culminated during the 2020 US leadership election when three DUP MPs — Sammy Wilson, Ian Paisley Jr and Paul Girvin — outwardly voiced their support for Biden’s rival Donald Trump.

A month after the flag stunt, Wilson (the DUP’s chief whip at Westminster) took to Twitter again to label Biden “a parrot for Irish Nationalism and their falsehoods re the Belfast Agreement”. He continued: “I would far rather have an American eagle in President Trump than a nationalist parrot in the White House. The choice belongs to the American people”.

Biden’s NI visit will not only be a test for the US President, therefore, but for Sir Jeffrey as leader of the DUP. Donaldson is under increasing pressure from within his party to look tough as international actors urge him to re-enter power-sharing arrangements.

Tellingly, it was Wilson, Girvan and Paisley who were the first in the DUP Westminster group to break rank and call for Sir Jeffrey to vote down Windsor Framework earlier this year. The DUP leader, a relative moderate, was widely thought to have wanted to support the reformed protocol. But his own MPs and the threat of electoral besiegement from external unionist forces impelled him into opposition. 

The episode was a lesson in unionism’s internal dynamics. Populistic hardliners like Wilson and Paisley Jr, who take tough stances on Brexit and UK unity, are always likely to triumph against the party’s more moderate clique — many of whom, including Sir Jeffrey, are Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) defectors. The DUP leader knows he must satisfy his ethno-national right flank at every turn, lest his party be accused of selling out unionism as a whole. 

Splits in the DUP are also appearing along institutional lines with its Westminster MPs in favour of prolonging the Stormont boycott, and its MLAs preferring a return to the assembly. Ultimately, the tendency of the DUP’s hardline to win internal scuffles would suggest Stormont may be suspended for some time yet. 

Joe Biden’s visit to the province may only serve to inflame tensions within the party — especially if the gaffe-prone president says anything that might identify him once more with the Irish nationalist cause. Even in the instance that Sir Jeffrey was at all minded to ease his party back to Stormont, he certainly could not be seen to do so under pressure from a US president perceived as in hock to Sinn Féin. In any case, Biden’s decision to spend most of his time in the Republic is unlikely to endear himself any more to the cause of political unionism.

Although it might be far from the most eye-catching diplomatic standoff in the world right now, Biden and Sir Jeffrey’s mutual disaffinity looks set to dominate today’s GFA jubilee. Under pressure from within his own party to appear exacting, the DUP leader has little choice but to tough out the leader of the free world’s diplomatic advances.