Politics

Joe Biden told to keep out of Northern Ireland row: ‘You’re no Bill Clinton!’

Biden ‘will understand EU is breaking Belfast agreement' says expert

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After a week of riots in Northern Ireland, US President Joe Biden has joined his British and Irish counterparts in calling for calm. It came as police used water cannons against nationalist youths in west Belfast, as unrest spilled again on the streets on Thursday evening, with reports that officers later warned they could use “impact rounds”, also known as plastic bullets. In a statement, the US President’s press secretary, Jen Psaki, said: “We are concerned by the violence in Northern Ireland, and we join the British, Irish, and Northern Irish leaders in their calls for calm.

“We remain steadfast supporters of a secure and prosperous Northern Ireland in which all communities have a voice and enjoy the gains of the hard-won peace.”

She spoke as the Northern Ireland Secretary, Brandon Lewis, called on political leaders across the spectrum to tone down their language to ease tensions.

Mr Biden, who has Irish roots, has repeatedly expressed support for the peace process and last year waded into a row over UK plans to override parts of the Brexit deal, warning Prime Minister Boris Johnson that any trade deal was “contingent upon respect for the [peace] agreement and preventing the return of a hard border”.

In a recent column, though, Noah Khogali, a contributor for Young Voices UK and policy director for the Conservative Friends of the Commonwealth, has urged the US President not to meddle in Northern Ireland.

Mr Khogali argued Mr Biden is nothing like his predecessor, Bill Clinton, and his involvement would only inflame tensions far beyond what they are at present.

He wrote: “The US has a history with resolving the conflict in Northern Ireland. Indeed, without them the Good Friday Agreement may never have been reached. However, that shouldn’t give any American President the immediate right to meddle in British domestic affairs — especially a President whose loyalties are questionable, to say the least.

“The reason Bill Clinton was so instrumental in the peace process in the Nineties was because he respected and revered the cultures and traditions of both the Protestant and Catholic communities, and they respected him in return.

“President Clinton’s trip to Londonderry sparked hope, not angst, as he became a voice of reason and bipartisanship, from the sidelines rather than wading into the middle of the conflict.”

On the other hand, Mr Biden, he noted, is “no Bill Clinton”.

Mr Khogali explained: “He’s a man who, albeit probably jokingly, refused to take questions from the BBC because of his ‘Irish Catholic’ heritage.

“In recent years, beaming, he’s posed for pictures with Gerry Adams and IRA fugitive turned Sinn Fein US representative Rita O’hare, and he’s made comments about how people ‘wearing orange’ weren’t welcome in his home.”

This, the political commentator added, runs in stark contrast to the rhetoric of hope and bi-partisanship on which the Clintons built their image in Northern Ireland.

Of course, it is completely understandable that Mr Biden, as someone of Irish Catholic heritage, would have a soft spot for the Republican movement.

However, according to Mr Khogali, compared to Mr Clinton, who managed to maintain an image of neutrality, Mr Biden seems ill-equipped to keep the peace.

He concluded in his piece for City AM: “His involvement would likely only ruin the US’s legacy of peacekeeping in the region.

“Unionist figures within Northern Ireland have already demonstrated their disdain for Biden, going so far as to accuse him of being an ‘Irish nationalist parrot’. It’s hard to see how the President’s involvement would do anything but inflame tensions far beyond what they are at present. Including Biden in any effort at de-escalation would be deeply misguided.

“Downing Street must take care not to let the US meddle in the ongoing Northern Ireland crisis. As tensions have escalated, so has the likelihood of US interventionism — but this must be dissuaded at all costs.”

It is not surprising Mr Biden wants to mimic the rhetoric of his predecessor.

After all, the US President is a big fan of Mr Clinton.

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Mr Biden’s signature legislative accomplishment during his four-decade Senate career was the 1994 Federal Crime Bill, passed with Mr Clinton’s support.

Moreover, much of Mr Biden’s memoir is devoted to his attempts to get a reluctant Mr Clinton to use military force in Kosovo.

Even now, according to a POLITICO report, Mr Clinton occupies a place in Mr Biden’s psyche that Hillary Clinton doesn’t.

Mr Biden’s staffers said his interaction with Mrs Clinton while they were both senior figures in the Obama administration often reverted back to the subject of her husband — with one of them recalling the former Vice President’s delight when she told him: “You and my husband think so similarly when it comes to politics.

“You guys were almost separated at birth.”

According to Douglas Mackinnon, a political and communications consultant and former special assistant for policy and communications for President George HW Bush, the US President should actually lean on Mr Clinton during his presidency.

He wrote in January: “Because he was considered an ‘outsider’ and had a tough, somewhat dysfunctional childhood, many of the elite insiders from both sides of the political aisle never really took to Clinton.

“No matter what most Republicans, conservatives or even a number of Democrats may say, the fact is that Clinton was an effective and successful President. The 90 months of economic expansion, low unemployment and low inflation during his terms speak to some of that success.”

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He added: “Much of that success came because he understood ‘real Americans’ and their everyday struggles.

“For example, Clinton understood that most Americans are ideologically comfortable somewhere in the middle of the party extremes. In 1992, the Democratic Party was considered too leftist by many middle-class voters — a perception that Biden will be assailed with in 2021 and possibly beyond — so Clinton cleverly adopted many messages of the ‘Reagan Revolution’ for his ‘New Democrat’ Party.”

Ironically, Mr Mackinnon noted, now 20 years since his presidency, Mr Clinton is still younger than both Mr Trump and Mr Biden, and he still has “much to offer” if the President-elect wants to tap him for policy ideas.

He concluded in his piece for The Hill: “Our nation remains divided and seems broken on so many levels. Politically, Clinton was a pragmatic centrist who could work with both sides to get things done. He got things done even under the smothering control of a Republican Congress.

“So, as an American, I sincerely hope that, at least in private, Biden will call upon Clinton’s vast experience, wisdom and unbroken connection to the American people.”

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