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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - WASHINGTON — US President Joe Biden and former President Bill Clinton will both visit Northern Ireland for the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.
Biden said it was his intention to also visit the Republic of Ireland. Clinton will be joined by his wife, former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, at an international conference at Queen’s University Belfast.
The peace deal was signed on April 10, 1998 and was designed to bring an end to three decades of conflict in Northern Ireland.
The current president said it was his intention to accept an invitation offered by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on Monday. The two leaders were at Point Loma naval base in California to unveil details of a nuclear submarine deal.
Sunak said: “I look forward to our conversations and also importantly, to invite you to Northern Ireland, which hopefully you will be able to do and so we can commemorate the anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.
“I know it’s something very special and personal to you, we’d love to have you over.”
Clinton visited Northern Ireland three times during his presidency — firstly to support peace talks which eventually led to the agreement and later to support its implementation.
He also attended an event at Queen’s University to mark the 20th anniversary of the agreement in 2018. Hillary Clinton is chancellor of the university.
She said she would be delighted to host her husband at the event, which runs from April 17-19. There has been speculation that Biden will also attend.
The deputy leader of Sinn Féin, Northern Ireland’s largest party, said she would be delighted to welcome Biden. Michelle O’Neill hailed the US as a key partner for peace in Ireland.
“Such a visit demonstrates its continued commitment, which is deeply valued,” said O’Neill, the would-be first minister in Northern Ireland’s absent executive.
The Democratic Unionist Party, Stormont’s second largest party, pulled out of the power-sharing agreement in February 2022 in protest against post-Brexit arrangements for Northern Ireland known as the NI Protocol.
While DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson welcomed Biden’s visit, he said progress on restoring power sharing would be made on the “basis of solid foundations”.
He said the new Windsor Framework deal to revise the protocol did not go far enough, saying that the UK government needed to give more clarification and the DUP would not be pressured into a decision on the Windsor Framework by “arbitrary timelines”.
Alliance Party assembly member Andrew Muir said Biden’s visit was an important and positive opportunity for Northern Ireland in the “context of a restored and reformed assembly and executive”.
Social Democratic and Labour Party MP Claire Hanna said the planned visit by Biden was good news.
“It reminds us that the Good Friday Agreement is an incredible achievement, even if there are parts that need refreshed,” she said.
Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister) Leo Varadkar tweeted to say he was looking forward to discussing Biden’s visit during his meeting with him later this week.
Sunak insisted the Windsor Framework deal with the EU was a “great step forward” for Northern Ireland, with hopes it could ease tensions with Democrats in the US and pave the way for trade talks.
But the prime minister downplayed the focus on a free trade deal with the US, telling GB News: “America is always, and has always been for a long time, our closest economic relationship, it’s our single biggest trade partner.”
The US president has long taken a close interest in the peace process in Northern Ireland.
During a St Patrick’s Day event in 2022 with then Taoiseach Micheál Martin, the president reaffirmed his government’s support for the Good Friday Agreement.
Also known as the Belfast Agreement, it was a political deal designed to bring an end to 30 years of violent conflict known as the Troubles.
Signed on April 10, 1998 and approved by public votes in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, it is based on the idea of co-operation between communities.
It helped to set up a new government for Northern Ireland, representing both nationalists and unionists.
The 25th anniversary of the deal will fall on April 10, 2023, which will be Easter Monday.
More details of r Biden’s cross-border visit are expected this week in the run-up to St Patrick’s Day events in the White House on Friday.
As well as visiting Northern Ireland, Biden is expected to visit his family’s ancestral home in Ballina, County Mayo.
Both Queen’s University Belfast (QUB) and Ulster University (UU) are hosting events to mark the anniversary.
Large, silent video portraits of the 14 politicians who negotiated the peace deal will be displayed at UU’s Belfast campus from April 15-20.
The university is also launching a new leadership program, a tourism summit and an education project based on journalist Lyra McKee’s legacy. — BBC
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