Jonathan Caine: My experience of Biden and his team suggests that we shouldn’t fear his presidency – but need to engage

19 Jan

Jonathan Caine is a Conservative peer and former special adviser at the Northern Ireland Office.

In 2013, along with the then Northern Ireland Secretary, Theresa Villiers, I attended the annual St Patrick’s Day lunch in New York City organized by the publishers of the Irish America magazine. Its purpose was to induct five new members into the Irish America Hall of Fame and chief among them was then Vice-President, Joe Biden, who delivered the keynote address.

My abiding memory of his speech that day, apart from it being rather long, was how perfectly he played his audience. His main theme of immigration reform – a key issue for Irish Americans – was peppered with the occasional light hearted jibe at the English and, of course, references to his own family of immigrants from Mayo (my own only made it as far as Leeds). They loved it.

While it was a typically jolly, and friendly, occasion It was, to put it mildly, a very ‘green’ one, which in reality catered exclusively for one version alone of Ireland’s story. I think I can safely say that I was the only person there that day wearing Union Flag cufflinks.

Fast forward to March 2018. I found myself at the Irish Ambassador’s private ‘after party’, at his Washington DC residence. It was a more intimate, but none the less convivial, gathering of the great and good of Irish America – including that evening the by then former Vice-President. My impression that evening was of Biden’s presence, and his easy-going charm, even posing for ‘selfies’ with one of my civil service colleagues. He was clearly among friends.

It hardly needs re-stating that Biden is fiercely proud of his Irish roots and heritage. Significant players within the Irish American community championed a Biden presidency, including when it looked doomed in the early part of 2020. Irish America will in turn now believe that they have a champion in President Biden.

As we approach his inauguration tomorrow, what should unionists in Northern Ireland, and those of us who speak up for the Union in Parliament, expect from the Biden presidency and should we be filled with foreboding about the prospects? On the basis of my experience, I do not necessarily believe so.

To be clear, I never dealt directly with Biden when he was Vice President. I did, though, attend a number of meetings and discussions with members of the administration who will now be senior figures in the incoming President’s team. They include Tony Blinken, now Secretary of State designate (and who I once saw performing in a State Department rock band called ‘Coalition of the Willing’), and National Security Adviser Designate, Jake Sullivan.

They were always very well informed, or briefed, about the situation in Northern Ireland. While we might disagree occasionally on certain issues – a public inquiry into the murder of Patrick Finucane being one – or have a difference of emphasis, their overriding interest was to do whatever they could to be helpful.

Biden himself always struck me as much more nuanced in his approach than his Irish-American background might lead one to assume. I suspect that given his lineage he will want to ensure that the administration is seen to be engaging fully with unionism, and operating in an even-handed way. As one well-placed US friend put it to me shortly after the election, Biden is a ‘smart and careful man’ and, 47 years after he first entered the Senate, ‘essentially a pragmatist’. He also strongly values the close ties that continue to exist between the United Kingdom and the United States.

Biden has, of course, been forthright in his commitment to preserving both the spirit and the letter of the 1998 Belfast Agreement, not least in the context of Brexit. Other senior Democrats have also been vociferous such such as the House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, and the current Chairman of Ways and Means (the key Committee in Congress on trade) Richie Neal.

I have been involved in many frank and stimulating discussions with Rep Neal. He is a highly engaging, charismatic and intelligent individual but, on Northern Ireland, even a cursory glance at the pictures and artefacts in his office tell one on which side his sympathies lie.

Support for the Belfast Agreement is, of course, also the clearly stated position of the United Kingdom Government – which, we should not forget, has the greatest interest of all in peace and stability in a part of its sovereign territory – and of the Irish Government. We should, therefore, in theory at least, all be on the same page. In addition, the deal reached with Brussels on Christmas Eve should allay some US fears on the Irish Border.

The challenge, however, when it comes to the 1998 Agreement is one of approach and interpretation. The political class in the US (along Brussels and large sections of the British media) tends to view the Agreement almost exclusively through the prism of Strand Two – that is the relationship between North-South – and by extension the avoidance of a border on the island of Ireland.

While nobody disputes that this is of great importance, US audiences frequently need also to be reminded that the Agreement is a three-stranded one in which those strands interlock delicately. Moreover, and crucially, at the heart of the Agreement is the consent principle, which is sacrosanct and underpins Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom. It cannot be stated enough that the Agreement did not establish Northern Ireland as some kind of hybrid state. Sadly, too many assume that it did.

In ensuring that the Agreement, in all its parts, is properly understood and appreciated in Washington, the British Embassy needs to be at the top of its game and be fully equipped with the right arguments. This is not something that has always been the case where, regrettably, on Northern Ireland issues we are frequently outplayed by the Irish (I make no criticism of them for doing an effective job). What is required, as has been supported by Henry Hill on these pages, is a more fully developed UK narrative of the Agreement than the predominantly Irish nationalist, or even republican, one that currently prevails in the States.

The UK Government cannot, however, and should not do this alone. Unionism from Northern Ireland needs to step up and play its part in articulating a United Kingdom narrative of the Agreement to counter the influence of Sinn Fein. Authentic and moderate Unionist voices will often have more sway in DC and elsewhere than UK ministers and diplomats. Over the past decade I have spent more time with Irish-America, members of the administration and senior figures in Congress than probably any other British political figure. The lesson I draw is clear – those of us who support the Union, and Northern Ireland’s place within it, should not fear a Biden Presidency, but we do need to engage.