Ireland welcomes a new star player in Joe Biden

Posted By: November 29, 2020


Stephen O’Brien. The Sunday Times. Dublin. Sunday, November 29, 2020


Fr. Seán McManus was returning to Washington DC from New York in late 1994 when his train made a routine stop at the Amtrak station in Wilmington, Delaware. McManus, an Irish nationalist lobbyist on Capitol Hill, had traveled to see Gerry Adams, then the Sinn Fein president, address a public meeting in New York during the faltering first steps of the Irish peace process.

Into McManus’s carriage stepped “Amtrak Joe” Biden, the senator for Delaware who got the nickname because of his three-hour daily commute to and from Washington by train. Seizing the moment, the Fermanagh-born priest approached the Irish American senator, whom he had met briefly some years earlier, with a sensitive request. Would he ask Al Gore, his former Senate colleague and now vice president in Bill Clinton’s White House, to contact Adams in order to help the peace process along?

“Clinton couldn’t meet with Adams personally. It was a bit too early in the peace process for that to happen, but people thought it would be good if Al Gore could call and have a chat with him,” said McManus. “The State Department, CIA and all sorts of people were opposed to Adams getting the visa [to visit America]. Joe Biden could have said, ‘Let me think about that, Father, and see what happens.’ But no, he was quite emphatic that he would make the call, and it told me a lot about him.”

As he counts down to his January 20 inauguration, Biden is the most Irish president since John F Kennedy in terms of his commitment to his ancestral homeland, but his wearing of the green has raised eyebrows in some quarters and hackles in others. So where exactly does he stand on Ireland, its peace, and its politics?

When asked for a few words by a BBC journalist just after the presidential election this month, Biden responded: “The BBC? I’m Irish,” before flashing a toothy grin and disappearing through a doorway. Then there was the St Patrick’s Day quip in 2015 when he joked with Enda Kenny, then taoiseach, that “anyone wearing orange is not welcome in here”.

Critics of Biden, including Nigel Farage writing in The Daily Telegraph, have highlighted a 2017 photograph of him with Adams and Rita O’Hare of Sinn Fein as evidence of the new president being somehow soft on terrorism — O’Hare fled Belfast in 1972 with charges pending against her for the attempted murder of a British Army warrant officer.

In response, the Irish American news site IrishCentral claimed: “Rita O’Hare is one of the most respected figures in the republican movement and served for many years as US liaison [for Sinn Fein], meeting President Obama, President Bush and many leading figures including Joe Biden during that time.”

IrishCentral founder Niall O’Dowd said he had not realized Biden was Irish American until he had served more than a decade in the US Senate and, in an interview with the magazine Washingtonian, declared his admiration for how Wolfe Tone, his political hero, “brought Catholic, Protestant, and dissenter together”.

McManus said: “I had a lot of dealings with him [“No, I said dealings with his office, not him personally”— insert by Fr. Sean Mc Manus] throughout the (1985-86) Senate hearings on the US-UK supplemental extradition treaty. Biden was your quintessential moderate American on the whole issue throughout the debates. That is the way he rolls on almost every issue. The recent nonsense that he is a socialist and will destroy capitalism? Give me a break — all that is crazy talk.”

The treaty was an effort by Britain, strongly supported by the State Department, to make it easier to extradite IRA suspects from America by removing “political activity” as a defense to the extradition request in American courts. Biden led a successful cross-party action at committee stage in Congress to amend the treaty and keep the political defense.

During one debate, the 1979 killing of Lord Louis Mountbatten in Co Sligo by the IRA was mentioned and his name was booed by a section of the gallery attending the committee proceedings. McManus, who was present, recalls that Biden silenced the jeers and pointed out that “two teenagers from Enniskillen” had been killed in the same attack: Paul Maxwell from Enniskillen and Nicholas Knatchbull from Kent, Mountbatten’s grandson.

“Significantly, he said that the incident with Mountbatten was outrageous and should never have happened,” McManus recalled. “He said we ‘could trade bad things on either side’ but ultimately he used the hearing as a platform to raise concern about British violations of human rights in Ireland, which America had been very slow to do.”

When the amended extradition treaty re-emerged from committee and came back to a full Senate hearing in July 1986, Biden explained his concerns.

“Northern Ireland has a very different system of justice from anything that we have ever experienced in the United States . . . even very different from what prevails in the rest of the United Kingdom,” he said, citing powers of arrest “without probable cause”, powers of search and seizure without warrant, the use of the non-jury Diplock courts for terrorist trials, and the widespread use of plastic bullets during unrest which had caused the deaths of 15 people including seven children.

Biden said: “I know bad laws — injustice sanctioned by legal means — are often cited in Northern Ireland to justify violence. I know the terrorist’s best weapon is a law that discriminates, a law that violates, a law that provokes injustice for some rather than promotes justice for all.

“Before we go shipping over American citizens, or citizens of any other country, to Northern Ireland for trial, we need to ensure that these people will in fact be able to get a fair trial.”

O’Dowd said: “On Irish political matters, Biden was never the most prominent, given that Ted Kennedy was the acknowledged leader on Irish issues, followed by Daniel Moynihan. But he was always supportive of the Irish side on issues ranging from the Adams visa to the Good Friday agreement and the peace process generally.”

Brian O’Donovan, RTE’s Washington correspondent, got a very different response from that given to the BBC when he called out to Biden last week: “Can I ask you a question about Ireland?”

“You can ask about Ireland any time you want,” the president-elect replied before outlining his firm position on Brexit. “The idea of having the border north and south once again being closed . . . it’s just not right. We gotta keep the border open,” he said.

O’Dowd observed: “Ireland has lucked out. Not since JFK has Ireland had such a close relationship with a new American president. The diplomatic jealousy felt by other countries towards the Irish embassy because of the tight relationship with the new president is obvious. Ireland was one of his first five calls when elected. On issues such as Brexit and trade deals and border issues, Ireland has a friend indeed.”

And will he visit Ireland? McManus is in no doubt: “Oh God, is the Pope Catholic? Could Muhammad Ali fight? Could Frank Sinatra sing? Of course, he will, but, with Covid-19, who knows when that will be?”