Biden’s trip a win for both the US and UK – but tensions remain over a trade deal


So many different versions of what might have been in Belfast were considered in the planning for today’s visit by the US president. 

If Stormont had been up and running, President Joe Biden would have gone there with Rishi Sunak.

With power sharing still deadlocked, at one point they considered making a pointed trip to the Northern Ireland Youth Parliament.

The metaphor – “young people can work together, why can’t you?” – all too stark.

But in the end that sort of stunt was judged too blunt, too likely to antagonise and not worth the risk. Both sides played it safe.

DUP responds to Biden’s carefully worded plea for return to power sharing – live Biden visit updates

Both the UK and the US had their own, very different, goals. Both are largely likely to be happy with what was achieved.

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For the US, this is in large part about Mr Biden celebrating his Irish roots.

Even while acknowledging, in passing, his British connections while on UK soil, he is more concerned with the 40 million Irish Americans ahead of next year’s election.

That is why the heart of this presidential trip is in Ireland, and the treacly welcome on the visit to this side of the Atlantic is reserved for Leo Varadkar, the Irish prime minister.

U.S. President Joe Biden meets British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak at the Grand Central Hotel, Belfast, Northern Ireland April 12, 2023. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Those pictures will remain in the consciousness, rather than those of the presidential vehicle, The Beast, blocking the view of Mr Sunak’s handshake.

It is not, as some claim, a sign that President Biden hates Britain.

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For the UK, the goal remains to get power sharing back up and running.

Number 10 has reaped all sorts of political rewards for striking the Windsor Framework – uniting almost all the Tory party and improving Britain’s standing on the world stage.

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Biden makes plea for NI power sharing

But the key goal at the heart of it – a return to Northern Ireland running the bulk of its own affairs – eludes it.

Number 10 achieved a morning with the president that wowed nationalists, did not aggravate the DUP and presented a picture of a better Northern Ireland if the parties can agree to work together.

It was not that exciting a trip for Mr Sunak, but given the primary goal it was never going to be.

For all Mr Sunak’s position as a golden boy on the world stage, however, there are some tensions with the US.

Ireland's Prime Minister (Taoiseach) Leo Varadkar greets U.S. President Joe Biden as he arrives at Dublin International Airport, in Dublin, Ireland April 12, 2023. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
President Biden received a warm welcome from Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar

A scaled-back issue-specific trade agreement is now on the table, but UK and US politicians remain tetchy over the issue of green subsidies, a subject that was discussed unsatisfactorily when the president and PM met in San Diego.

There is still work to do.

But the optics of a British PM working closely with US and EU allies, after a decade of tension, still remains a novelty and something which Sunak looks determined to capitalise on at every opportunity.

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