'Unfinished business': Biden visits Northern Ireland as political tensions persist

President Biden arrives in Northern Ireland to mark the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.

'Unfinished business': Biden visits Northern Ireland as political tensions persist

U.S. president Joe Biden arrived in Northern Ireland Tuesday to celebrate the 25th anniversary the Good Friday Agreement, a historic peace agreement that ended decades of sectarian violence.

Rishi Sunak, the British Prime Minister, will welcome Biden off the plane Tuesday evening to start a four-day trip to Ireland. He will deliver a speech on Northern Ireland before moving south of the border into the Republic of Ireland.

The visit of the president comes in a turbulent political climate. Since 2022, the Northern Ireland Assembly - the devolved legislative body established under the Good Friday Agreement - has been suspended as unionist parties have refused to sit in protest against the Northern Ireland Protocol.

The Protocol was a key part of the post Brexit Withdrawal Agreement between the U.K., and the European Union signed during the tenure of former Prime Minister Boris Johnson. It effectively established a border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland in the Irish Sea.

Northern Ireland is a part of Britain, while the Republic of Ireland remains a nation-state that is part of Europe. The Good Friday Agreement established power-sharing in Northern Ireland. This ended three decades worth of violence between predominantly Catholic Irish republicans who sought a united Ireland and predominantly Protestant pro British unionists who wanted to remain a part of the U.K.

Sunak and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen signed the Windsor Framework recently, a renegotiated agreement that aims to fix the Protocol's problems. The prominent pro-Brexit Democratic Unionist Party, however, rejected the proposals. They have yet to return the Assembly at Stormont.

Theresa Villiers - former U.K. secretary of state for Northern Ireland from 2012 to 2016 - told CNBC Tuesday that the Windsor Framework would need further modifications.

Villiers told CNBC’s Tania Bryer that, while the Northern Ireland Protocol is positive in some ways, especially when it comes to the movement of medicines and food between Great Britain, it does not resolve all of its problems.

The best way to bring back the unionists to government and get the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement up and running is to continue negotiations with the EU.


Unionist dissatisfaction over the Northern Ireland Protocol led to riots during the past few years. However, political unrest is still evident on both sides.

The annual parades of dissident Irish-republican groups held in Derry, a border city that has been a focal point for sectarian conflict since the 1960s, also saw police vans petrol bombed.

The parades marked the anniversary of 1916 Easter Rising, the armed revolt against British rule that led to Irish independence.

Even today, some republican dissidents reject the Good Friday Agreement. Many of the current rioters are born after it was signed.

Villiers said that the weekend riots seemed to be "preplanned" in order to "get attention" and to "optimise" the situation, while the vast majority is Northern Ireland are committed to a democratic and peaceful future.

In recent years, fringe dissident groups are increasingly attracting disaffected youth to militant causes. This has caused concern among politicians and public authorities.

The flare-up highlights the simmering generational tensions that can still inflame in Northern Ireland. This is especially true during the period from April to July, when both unionist and nationalist communities hold politically charged marches.

The political impasse is centered on Brussels and not Washington

The Good Friday Agreement, signed by British Prime Minister Tony Blair on April 10, 1998 and the Irish Taoiseach at the time, Bertie Ahern after years of painstaking negotiation, was approved by 71% of Northern Irish voters and 94% in the Republic.

The Agreement brought an end to three decades of violent sectarian conflict, known as the Troubles. More than 3,000 people died during this period. The Agreement brought together nationalists and unionists in Stormont near Belfast to share power via the devolved governments.

Bill Clinton, the former U.S. president, is credited with playing a key role in the Northern Irish Peace Process. The Good Friday Agreement has been cited as a major success of his administration. Clinton was the first U.S. president to visit Northern Ireland while in office and to appoint an American special regional envoy. George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Clinton have all visited since then. In 2018, Clinton received the Freedom of the City of Belfast.

The Biden administration is keen to emphasize both the president’s Irish roots as well as the historical ties between the island of Ireland and large parts of the American populace. The influence of Irish American culture has led to skepticism among unionists who view Washington as susceptible to influence from nationalists.

Biden's previous support of the Northern Ireland Protocol, which he endorsed in the past, has been criticized by DUP politicians.

"Of Course Bill Clinton was a positive influence, in my opinion, on the peace process which led to the Good Friday Agreement. But ultimately, the presence of President Biden won't change the fundamentals we've discussed." Villiers stated on Tuesday that the blockages to devolved institutions are more related to Brussels than to Washington.

Sunak hopes that the visit of the President will help to promote the Windsor Framework - an achievement which the Conservative Party, the ruling party in the UK, will want the highlight at the general elections next year. In September, the prime minister will hold a conference on investment in Belfast.

"One of the benefits of President Biden’s visit was to highlight how fantastic Northern Ireland is, not only to live in but also to run a company and invest in. And there has been a huge success story for many large U.S. businesses with large operations. Villiers added: "I hope this will continue to grow in the future."