Rishi Sunak says the relationship between the UK and US is “in great shape” after he held talks with Joe Biden, despite strong criticism of the president from one of Northern Ireland’s main parties.
Mr Biden arrived in the region late last night for his trip to the island of Ireland to mark 25 years of the Good Friday Agreement, and was greeted by the prime minister on the tarmac at Belfast International.
But the president, who often refers to his Irish roots, faced a swathe of criticism from senior figures in the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), who claimed he was “anti-British” and “hates the UK”.
The White House was forced to deny the accusations, calling them “simply untrue”, and insisting Mr Biden was “a strong supporter” of relations between the countries.
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Commentators have also questioned the lack of time Mr Sunak and his US counterpart were spending together on the four-day trip, with only the greeting on Tuesday night and a 45-minute coffee at the Belfast Grand Central Hotel on Wednesday – dubbed a “bi-latte” by one US newspaper – in the diary.
However, the PM pointed to the fact it was the president’s fourth visit to the UK since taking office, and the pair already had two further meetings set for May and June.
Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Mr Sunak said: “[Mr Biden] and I had a very good discussion today about a range of issues, [like] economic investment in Northern Ireland, but also a range of foreign policy issues, [like] the importance of economic security, and that comes on the back of a meeting I had with him last month in the US.
“We are very close partners and allies, we cooperate and talk on a range of things – whether that is supporting Ukraine or as I said economic security.
“I think, actually, the relationship is in great shape and the president and I have lots we are working on together.”
Mr Biden’s visit comes amid ongoing paralysis in the Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont, with the DUP refusing to re-join the power sharing agreement over the UK government’s post-Brexit arrangements on trade.
The president met the leaders of the region’s five main political parties – including the DUP’s Sir Jeffrey Donaldson – after his talk with Mr Sunak and before delivering an address at Ulster University this afternoon to commemorate the Good Friday Agreement – the deal that largely ended 30 years of bloodshed between republicans and loyalists.
During his carefully worded speech, Mr Biden said Brexit had created “complex challenges” for Northern Ireland, but said the latest deal to tackle issues in the region – known as the Windsor Framework – addressed “the practical realities”, calling it “an essential step to ensuring the hard-earned peace and progress of the Good Friday Agreement… are preserved and strengthened”.
The president urged a return to power sharing at Stormont, saying: “As a friend, I hope it’s not too presumptuous for me to say that I believe democratic institutions established through the Good Friday Agreement remain critical to the future of Northern Ireland.
“It’s a decision for you to make, not me.”
Sir Jeffrey told Reuters after his one-on-one with the president that the visit did not change the political dynamic in Northern Ireland.
However, the leader of Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland, Michelle O’Neill, said Mr Biden had sent “a clear message to the DUP”.
She added: “I think the message here from this visit is going to be one about peace, prosperity and about stability, and that means we need the political leg of things to work as well. I’m committed to making it work.”
DUP MP Jim Shannon said his party welcomed Mr Biden’s visit to Northern Ireland, but that it “would have been better if he’d have come with some encouragement perhaps on how we can move the dynamic forward”.
Speaking to Sky News after the speech, he added: “The clear obstacle through all this is that unionists – and that is a large proportionate of the electorate in Northern Ireland – have not had the involvement in the process in the way forward to find a solution
“So maybe President Biden could have perhaps found a way to encourage the United Kingdom government, and the prime minister in particular, to try and find a solution that involves a large part of the population of Northern Ireland that are not a part of this process so far.”
However, earlier on Wednesday, some of his other colleagues from the DUP were less welcoming.
One of the party’s MPs Sammy Wilson claimed Mr Biden had “a record of being pro-Republican, anti-Unionist, anti-British”.
And former first minister of Northern Ireland, Baroness Foster, said the president “hates the UK”.
Senior director for Europe at the US National Security Council, Amanda Sloat, called the claims “simply untrue”, adding: “The fact that the president is going to be engaging for the third time in three months, and then again next month and then again in June with the prime minister of the UK, shows how close our co-operation is with the UK.
“President Biden obviously is a very proud Irish-American, he is proud of those Irish roots, but he is also a strong supporter of our bilateral partnership with the UK, and not only on a bilateral basis within NATO, the G7, on the UN Security Council, and we truly are working in lockstep with the British government on all of the pressing global challenges that our countries are facing.”
Some have suggested the US president’s time in the region would have been longer had Stormont been sitting – but instead he will cross the border to Ireland this afternoon for a number of engagements, including meeting the Irish president and prime minister in Dublin and a tour of Carlingford Castle in Co Louth, where he traces his roots to.
Downing Street played down claims yesterday that the engagement between Mr Biden and Mr Sunak was “low-key” and scaled back, even though the PM did not stay to watch the president’s speech – with the UK government instead being represented by Northern Ireland secretary Chris Heaton-Harris.