Joe Biden to meet Rishi Sunak before keynote speech at Ulster University


Joe Biden will hold a meeting with Rishi Sunak in Belfast on Wednesday before a keynote speech in which he is expected to emphasize the US’s commitment to ensuring lasting peace and prosperity for Northern Ireland.

US officials said the president would be “underscoring the readiness of the United States to support Northern Ireland’s vast economic potential to the benefit of all communities” with the prospect of major investments if power-sharing is restored in Stormont.

It is understood he or Sunak, who will return to Belfast next week for another event involving the former US president Bill Clinton, will hint at a major economic summit later this year to lure foreign investment.

A second meeting with Sunak will take place on Wednesday mid-morning, along with local party leaders, on the fringes of the main event at Ulster University’s new campus in Belfast at 1pm.

Downing Street on Tuesday was forced to deny a New York Times report that the White House had scaled back Biden’s meeting with Sunak from a bilateral event to a low-key coffee meeting.

“I wouldn’t characterise it as that,” said a No 10 spokesperson. “We continue to have an incredibly positive working relationships with the president and the US government.”

However it is believed that the visit to Belfast was shortened after early consideration of a visit to Stormont to meet the political parties was ruled out.

There had also been talk of Biden unveiling a plaque to the former US senator George Mitchell, who chaired the peace talks 25 year ago, but that is not on the schedule either.

The low-key and shortened visit reflects the political sensitivities that prevail after Sunak’s recent deal with the EU on Brexit and the continued boycott of Stormont by the Democratic Unionist party.

The former prime minister Tony Blair had advised the president to be cautious in using his influence to lobby the DUP to revive Stormont. “The Americans can play a real role, but it’s something that you need to do carefully,” he said.

The Northern Ireland secretary, Chris Heaton-Harris, and King Charles’s personal representative for County Antrim, Lord-Lieutenant David McCorkell, were also among the welcoming party.

The two leaders met briefly before the president drove away in an armoured car amid relentless rain.

Heavy security on both sides of the border preceded the US entourage, which included the economic envoy to Northern Ireland, Joseph Kennedy III.

Dozens of police and US Secret Service vehicles sealed off rain-drenched streets around central Belfast on Tuesday morning as Biden and his entourage emerged from the four floors they had taken over in a central city hotel.

Manhole covers were lifted and checked and sniffer dogs inspected hotel rooms as part of a £7m security operation – bolstered by 300 extra police from the British mainland.

In Derry, police recovered four suspected pipe bombs from a cemetery where republicans had staged an Easter Monday commemoration that led to petrol bomb attacks on police. The discovery was a “sinister and worrying development”, said the Police Service of Northern Ireland assistant chief constable Bobby Singleton, with the Police Federation for Northern Ireland saying it was a clear statement of intent to cause harm to police officers.

Biden is expected to leave Belfast in the early afternoon to head south across the border for three days of pomp and pilgrimage in Ireland.

He will fly to Dublin and then be taken by helicopter to Dundalk and Carlingford, where his great-grandfather James Finnegan was born, with a walkabout in both towns and a visit to ancestral graves in Kilwirra cemetery.

On Thursday, he will hold separate meetings with the Irish president, Michael D Higgins, and the taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, before making a speech to a joint sitting of parliament, following in the footsteps of John F Kennedy in 1963, Ronald Reagan in 1984 and Bill Clinton in 1995. There will be a banquet dinner at Dublin Castle.

On Friday, Biden will fly to County Mayo and tour the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Knock, a Catholic shrine, where he is expected to pray.

He will also visit the North Mayo Heritage Centre’s family history research unit and meet relatives from another side of his family before making a speech that evening outside St Muredach’s Cathedral in Ballina.

“It’s brilliant,” said Laurita Blewitt, a fourth cousin who has met the president several times in Ireland and Washington. “Ballina is a buzz of excitement – flags, bunting, welcome signs. We’re really looking forward to Friday.

“It’ll be a historic day for the town.”

The only problem, besides traffic havoc caused by security, was the threat of rain, said Blewitt. On Thursday night, she said, residents will put out Child of Prague statues in keeping with a folklore belief that this increases the chances of good weather.