He did what he could. President Joe Biden stood in Ulster University and delivered a speech with a very clear message to the parties of Northern Ireland and the DUP in particular. It was coded, but barely so. No-one was under any illusion as to what he was saying. Compromise builds peace. Peace builds prosperity.
The development of Northern Ireland after the Good Friday Agreement was based on “conversation and compromise”, he said. “Peace was not inevitable. We can’t ever forget that. There was nothing inevitable about it.” It took hard work. And when it was done, it unleashed a sustained increase in investment. An effective devolved government could now draw even more. “There are scores of major American corporations wanting to come here, wanting to invest.”
The message was simple. Restore devolved government. Serve your constituents. Do right by your country.
Biden is an unusual political speaker. He is doddery. His anecdotes take three times as long as they should. He seems always on the verge of making the most monumental gaffe. You find yourself holding your breath sometimes as you watch him. Nor is he the best American to make this case to Unionists. His own nationalist sympathies are pretty obvious. His instinctive rejection of a British interviewer in 2020 – “The BBC? I’m Irish” – might have felt clever at the time, but now it is a barrier to him being able to adopt a meaningful position of influence in Northern Irish affairs.
And yet, for all that, there was something delicate and beautiful in his speech. Peace in Northern Ireland had, as he put it, “shifted the political gravity in our world”. It had shown what was possible. It had suggested that no conflict, no matter how long-lasting or intractable, was insurmountable. If people sat down with a willingness to work together, there was no limit to what they could achieve.
Biden’s problem, and more pertinently, the problem for the people of Northern Ireland, is that he was not addressing people who are prepared to compromise.
The DUP claim that they will not return to power sharing until the Northern Ireland Protocol has been fixed. This is, in itself, a statement of supreme moral and intellectual failure. They demanded Brexit. They supported it, in all its growing idiocies and palavers, right up until the moment they realised that it would detonate underneath them.
At no point have they offered an answer to its central conundrum: where do you put the border? At no point have they provided the slightest glimmer of productive thought as to the technical problems which it raises. Just more tub-thumping puritanism and red-faced outrage, as their support dwindles and their values disintegrate.
There is no way to “both sides” the Northern Irish situation, to act as if everyone is equally culpable. Most voters in Northern Ireland rejected Brexit in the referendum. It was forced on them anyway and they tried to make it work. They rejected the Protocol. It was forced on them anyway and they tried to make it work. They now want to make the Windsor Framework work. At each step, the people who didn’t ask for any of this have compromised to make the best of it. And the people who demanded it have refused to compromise, even when faced with the consequences of their own advocacy.
Even without the protocol, there is another reason lurking underneath the DUP’s recalcitrance. They cannot accept the result of the elections last May, when Sinn Fein emerged as the largest party and secured the right to the first minister position. This resistance is even worse than the mental gymnastics the party committed over Brexit. It is a rejection of the basic operating system of the Good Friday Agreement, the quid pro quo, the fairness and consensus which was baked into its DNA. It is a rejection of basic democratic values and the recognition of election results.
Biden knows better than anyone what he faces with the DUP. It is precisely the same disposition which he faces with Trumpist Republicanism in the US: a culture which treats politics as a war between rival identity battalions. It’s a culture in which any kind of concession is betrayal, in which narratives of victimhood take precedence over consensus or universality. It is the infantalisation of political debate, in which mewling screams of entitlement replace the grown-up language of negotiation and trade-offs.
He was right in both the arc of his speech and its detail. Compromise builds peace. Peace builds prosperity. But the honest truth is that the DUP has rejected compromise. And in doing so, it sacrificed all that followed from it.