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Why Joe Biden is so invested in defending Good Friday agreement

Analysis: Northern Ireland is a rare issue of bipartisan consensus and a pillar of US foreign policy

Joe Biden’s commitment to defending the Good Friday agreement is baked into his political history and identity. But it is also a pillar of US foreign policy, a rare issue of bipartisan consensus in an otherwise hyper-polarised political scene, one of the few stances Biden can take on the world stage without drawing fire from Republicans.

Biden’s emotional attachment to Ireland has been a constant throughout his adult life and has become part of his political identity too. He routinely refers to his mother’s family history and his ties to County Mayo. He quotes Irish poets, and uses the example of British rule in Ireland as a bridge to empathise with persecuted minorities.

After he won the election in November, the BBC’s Nick Bryant asked if he had “a quick word” for the British broadcaster. “The BBC?” the president replied. “I’m Irish.”

At his first full press conference as president, in March, he recalled that his great-grandfather had been forced to leave Ireland “because of what the Brits had been doing”.

Biden sees his contributions to peace in Ireland as an important part of his legacy. He was in a group of senators in the 1980s who began pushing for greater US diplomatic involvement to end the conflict. From his seat on the Senate foreign relations committee, he helped push the Clinton administration into committing resources and political capital to brokering the agreement in 1998.

But unlike the Iran nuclear deal, for example, the Good Friday agreement is not seen as a purely Democratic achievement. George W Bush also pursued its implementation during his presidency. Even under the Trump administration, the US special envoy Mick Mulvaney was dispatched to warn Brexiters of the risk of creating a hard border “by accident” on the island of Ireland.

When the Democrat Bob Menendez and the Republican Susan Collins sponsored a Senate resolution in March reaffirming bipartisan support for the agreement, it won unanimous support.

“The inclusive power-sharing system established by the Good Friday agreement was a landmark achievement that established a framework for peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland,” Collins said at the time. “Our resolution encourages all parties to continue to work toward the implementation of the Good Friday agreement, as well as subsequent agreements that promote peace and stability on the island of Ireland.”

Democrats and Republicans from the Friends of Ireland group in Congress have repeatedly signalled that the UK would have no hope of getting a free trade deal with the US if Brexit, and tampering with the Brexit agreement, jeopardised Irish peace.

Brendan Boyle, a Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania and leading member of the Friends of Ireland group, told the Guardian: “This is a highly partisan time in American politics, and there are very few issues, precious few, that are truly bipartisan. Defence of the Good Friday agreement and preserving peace on the island of Ireland is one of those few.

“And it’s not just among elected officials. If you were to survey foreign policy and national security experts, whether they are in left-leaning or right-leaning thinktanks, you would find the same consensus. Frankly this is just not a divisive issue in the US. It’s a settled one. What the Boris Johnson government is doing in handling the Brexit negotiation is really isolating Britain from all of its traditional allies.”

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