Biden warns of defending democracy as Northern Ireland faces tensions

President Joe Biden has warned about the fragility of democracy in a major speech in Belfast, Northern Ireland, on Wednesday to mark the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.

Biden warned that “democracy needs champions” in every new generation as he praised the landmark peace deal and he made reference to the storming of the U.S. Capitol building on January 6, 2021.

His remarks come amid concerns about tensions in Northern Ireland and a significant police presence on the streets of Belfast, where many streets have been cordoned off and multiple officers have been deployed.

“We in the United States have first hand experience how fragile even longstanding democratic institutions can be. You saw what happened on January 6 in my country,” Biden said during his speech at Ulster University’s new Belfast city campus.

President Joe Biden delivers a speech at Ulster University on April 12, 2023 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Biden warned that “democracy needs champions” during a major speech in Belfast on Wednesday.
Charles McQuillan/Getty

The Northern Ireland Assembly—the elected government in Northern Ireland—is not currently in operation. The assembly was established by the Good Friday Agreement to ensure power-sharing between unionists and nationalists.

Unionists believe that Northern Ireland should remain part of the U.K., while nationalists believe Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland should become a single, independent nation.

The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the largest unionist party, has said it will not return to power-sharing until its concerns about new trading requirements introduced as a result of the U.K.’s decision to leave the European Union (EU) are addressed.

“We learn anew with every generation that democracy needs champions,” Biden said on Wednesday. “I believe democratic institutions remain critical to the future of Northern Ireland.”

“It’s a decision for you to make, not for me to make,” Biden said.

“I hope the assembly and the executive will soon be restored,” the president added, saying: “That’s a judgment for you to make, not me. I hope it happens, along with the institutions that help facilitate north-south and east-west relations, all of which are vital pieces of the Good Friday Agreement.”

The terrorism threat level in Northern Ireland was raised to “severe” on March 28 and the police presence in the streets of Belfast has been notable but not overwhelming.

Streets approaching Ulster University were surrounded with cordons and police officers were dotted along the route.

Biden spoke in front of a packed crowd, which included the leaders of Northern Ireland’s political parties, who were sitting in the front row near the lectern where Biden spoke.

Many others attendees listened to the president’s speech from balconies behind Biden but crowds outside the university building were limited, possibly due to the security presence and cordons.

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