Biden brings forward Belfast visit, putting meeting with king in doubt

Charles and president likely to instead stage back-to-back visits to mark 25 years of Good Friday agreement

Hopes that Joe Biden’s landmark trip to Belfast next month will be rounded off by a meeting with King Charles are fading after the US president brought forward by a week his trip to celebrate 25 years of peace.

It now appears likely the king and the president will stage back-to-back visits in an echo of historic visits to Dublin by Barack Obama and the queen in 2011.

Neither the White House nor Buckingham Palace would confirm dates but senior figures in Northern Ireland have been told to expect the US president on 11 April and the king one week later.

US sources say the failure to coordinate diaries at the highest level is not a royal snub but a result of Biden’s desire to let Bill and Hillary Clinton have “their moment in the sun” during a week of events to mark the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday agreement.

The centrepiece of the week is a reunion, at Queen’s University, of the architects of the deal including the former US senator George Mitchell, who chaired the talks between unionists and republicans that ultimately resulted in the IRA and loyalist paramilitaries laying down their arms.

Tony Blair and the former taoiseach Bertie Ahern, who shepherded the deal over the line, will also attend.

Biden accepted Rishi Sunak’s formal invitation to Belfast two weeks ago when the prime minister visited the US. But the trip has been complicated by Biden’s determination to fit in a family holiday in County Mayo in the west of Ireland, where he has roots.

It is thought, under the provisional itinerary, Biden will visit Belfast on 11 April with a keynote speech the next day alongside a visit to a high-profile US operation in Northern Ireland, possibly in the fintech sector, to highlight the raft of opportunities for American investors in Northern Ireland after Sunak’s deal with the EU on Brexit.

He is then expected to travel to Dublin and from there take a three- or four-day holiday in the west of Ireland.

Buckingham Palace declined to offer any comment on the king’s expected trip to Northern Ireland but the purpose appears to be to remind unionists and others concerned about the fallout from Brexit of the higher value of the achievements 25 years ago.

However, that challenge could be addressed if the king went to Belfast a week earlier, as this would coincide with the actual anniversary of the Belfast agreement, 10 April, a day before Biden’s tentative visit.

To add to the complications, the terrorism threat level in Northern Ireland was raised on Tuesday from substantial to severe. The move, based on an MI5 intelligence assessment, follows the recent shooting of a police officer while he was returning from football training with his son.

The White House is determined to make the trip. Biden considers the Good Friday agreement a model for peace for post-conflict states that, despite the political turbulence caused by Brexit, has yet to be replicated anywhere else.


Lisa O'Carroll and Julian Borger

The GuardianTramp

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