Opinion

Joe Biden spoke in Belfast about 25 years of peace. Here's why it matters

When President Biden came to Belfast to commemorate 25 years of the Good Friday Agreement, his message was a reminder to keep looking forward

Joe Biden makes a speech

President Biden marks the 25th Anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement in Belfast on April 12. Image: Ulster University/UPI/Shutterstock

Clearly there is one universal talking point. If you thought it was the weather or the health service
or even the diminishing size of Mars bars, think again. It’s potholes. The great modern curse. They are everywhere. Literally. 

To support this thesis, I give you The Terminator. Last week an online video appeared showing Arnold Schwarzenegger taking matters into his own hands. Cars and bikes on the street where he lived were suffering terrible damage, he said, when they came a cropper in a giant gash in the road. So, as local authorities were not dealing with this, he and some friends decided to get some asphalt and repair the thing themselves. Imagine driving down the street and seeing that happening. Next week, pollarding with Sylvester Stallone. Then a move to guttering and other small maintenance projects with Jason Statham. Far be it from me to judge Arnie’s endeavours, but I don’t think he compressed enough. A bit of weather and a few wheels and he’ll be back. That’s potholes for you! 

The Arnie moment popped up just before President Biden delivered his speech at the Ulster University campus in Belfast. It was a very telling moment, and oddly emotional – Biden, I mean.  

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Marking 25 years since the Good Friday Agreement was signed, here was the most powerful democratically elected person in the world showing up to try and shore things up. He had to walk a very thin line between calling out the DUP for blocking a return to Stormont while also not alienating the parties keen to return by showing too much passiveness towards the DUP.

As it was, he scored it right. He made it clear there was a lot of inward investment if Belfast’s devolved Assembly got back on the rails. He also allowed enough space for both sides to find a comfortable place to sit. And while you might wonder why this brief speech that walked a line was important, it’s because of this – while the situation in Northern Ireland remains a challenge, it’s not as bad as it used to be. Nothing is that bad.  

Last week, during the Good Friday Agreement commemorations I saw many people I knew a long time ago commenting on 25 years of peace. There was no sliver of cynicism in anything they said. And all of them had the same teak-like hardness back then towards things that we grew up in. Instead, they had simple, resonant explanations of why this was an incredible moment.  

Biden’s speech matters because it was an informed and careful attempt to stop slideback, and that has implications for those who live there now, those of us who don’t and the wider world. I can understand why people beyond Ireland are sick of hearing about intractable politicians and toxic sectarian extremes. Why can’t they sort it out!  

Because obviously things aren’t as straightforward as fixing a hole, sadly. All of us who were born into the Troubles and came of age as they continued unabated were damaged and carry some baggage. It can’t just be shaken off like a wet coat. Northern Ireland feels like a political science lecture at present, one that is shared around the world, to show that change can come, agreements can be signed, futures can be altered. But it’s not finite. It’s an evolving process that needs work and frequent attention.  

As the dust settles on the Good Friday Agreement commemorations, and Joe Biden packs up his favourite Heaney collections and returns to the White House, life will go on in its bruised and unsettled way in Northern Ireland. It’s imperative that things don’t go backwards. That shock would have ramifications way beyond Belfast Lough. 

Maybe then the call will go out to Arnie. 

Paul McNamee is editor of the Big IssueRead more of his columns here. Follow him on Twitter

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