The US president’s favourite word is “malarkey” — an Irish-Americanism that means nonsense. His top poet is Ireland’s late Seamus Heaney. The holiday he most relishes is St Patrick’s Day. It should thus be no surprise — even to Britain’s King Charles III, whose coronation Biden will miss next month — that Biden is spending four days in Ireland, three of them in the republic. It is nevertheless striking. This is his longest visit as president to another country, and the smallest to host a state visit from him.
In politics, symbolism is substance. Biden’s ancestral tour is aimed at something larger than sentiment. The hero of Biden’s youth, John F Kennedy, America’s first president of Catholic Irish descent, also made a long presidential trip to Ireland, which he said were “the happiest four days of my life”. He was assassinated five months later. At 43, Kennedy was America’s youngest elected president. At 78, Biden was America’s oldest. As only the second Catholic to become America’s commander-in-chief, Biden feels that bond.
It is easy for non-Americans to make fun of US politicians seeking mileage from family trees. It can also betray a hint of envy. Few US presidents of British descent — of which there have been many — have made much of their antecedents. This is partly because the United States was born in opposition to the crown but also because it is hard to pin down a British-American identity. Although Biden’s roots are mostly Irish, his surname descends from an English forebear who came from West Sussex. The Sussex-American vote is not a big factor in US politics.
The serious point is that Biden’s idea of Irish-Americanism taps into something deeper than heritage. The prolonged Irish trip will send two signals: one to American voters; the other to foreigners. On Monday, Biden let slip once again that he is planning to run for re-election. The only question is when he will announce. His campaign’s core message will be about his middle-class agenda — a topic that Biden invariably interweaves with his Irishness.
Even more often than he recites Heaney, Biden tells voters that being middle class is a “value”, not an economic measure. His account of that value — getting up when you are knocked down, making a better life for your children, judging a person’s honesty by the sweat on their brow — is indistinguishable from how he depicts Irishness. There is a trace of malarkey in that conflation but enough that is authentic to make it good politics. No matter how often the White House press corps rolls their eyes on hearing Biden’s stock anecdotes, they strike a chord with many voters. In Bidenspeak, the terms “underdog”, “immigrant” and “getting ahead” are cheerfully jumbled. To be American-Irish is to intuit the meaning of the American creed.
None of the above apply to Donald Trump, whom the betting odds still say will be Biden’s opponent in 2024. Biden will be mobbed wherever he goes in Ireland. Trump, whose mother was born in Scotland, was advised to steer clear of the country because of local hostility. On Trump’s state visit to the UK, he had to bypass most of London by helicopter because of the strength of protests against him. It is hard to imagine Trump wanting to help out with the fragile Good Friday Agreement, the Anglo-Irish deal that was partly brokered 25 years ago by Bill Clinton, Biden’s Democratic predecessor.
It is unclear if God almighty himself — as Biden would say — could persuade Ulster’s Democratic Unionist Party to embrace the deal’s power-sharing formula that has left Northern Ireland rudderless for just under a year. Because of Protestant Irish intransigence, and the effects of Brexit, it is still too early to proclaim one of the world’s most celebrated peace deals a success. But in trying to shore it up, Biden is doing more than just a favour to Ireland.
His decision to attend the Good Friday anniversary and skip the London coronation sends a message to Britain, Europe and beyond. The UK will get no trade deal with America if it jeopardises the peaceful border between Ireland’s north and south. Rishi Sunak, Britain’s prime minister, has taken that to heart in his recent Windsor framework deal with Brussels to sort out the border issues.
Moreover, Biden, unlike Trump, values the European Union. In Biden’s head — and undoubtedly Trump’s too — Brexit and Trump’s 2016 election were closely linked events. There is no harm in a US president reminding people on each side of the Atlantic that alternative paths are available.