Joe Biden seeks to ‘make hope and history rhyme’ in Irish homecoming address

  • london
  • April 13, 2023
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t was a trip to mark the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement – but in his historic address to the Dail, US President Joe Biden did not want to just look into the past.

He wanted to outline a “conviction that better days lie ahead”.

He arrived two hours late, but the gathered politicians and dignitaries did not mind the delay as they greeted him with a raucous and extended standing ovation.

It was clearly an important and emotional moment for a president who has been so vocal about his love for his heritage.

He opened his would-be homecoming speech by looking upwards with his arms outstretched: “Well mom, you said it would happen…”

Speaking briefly in Irish before switching back to English, Mr Biden said: “I’m at home, I’m at home. I only wish I could stay longer.”

He paid tribute to his distant relatives – brought physically closer by their presence at the speech in Leinster House – who hail from around the island of Ireland, including Irish rugby players Rob and Dave Kearney.

But importantly, he called on an ancestral Irish lilt as he recited from the works of Irish Nobel Prize winning poet Seamus Heaney.

On what would have been the poet’s 84th birthday, Heaney’s widow Marie listened on beside the president’s son Hunter and sister Valerie Biden Owens as he read from his favourite poem, The Cure Of Troy.

“Don’t hope on this side of the grave,

“But then, once in a lifetime,

“The longed-for tidal wave

“Of justice can rise up

“And hope and history rhyme.”

This was the central message of the president’s address.

Mr Biden aimed to highlight the successes of the Good Friday Agreement while drawing on that optimism to offer a vision for a better future.

Among the dignitaries invited were former Irish president Mary McAleese and ex-taoiseach Enda Kenny as well as two key Good Friday Agreement negotiators, former taoiseach Bertie Ahern and ex-Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams – who could be seen reminiscing before and after the speech.

The agreement saw the creation of new political institutions in Northern Ireland based on a system of powersharing.

However, they have collapsed several times, most recently when the DUP exercised a veto and brought down devolution in protest at post-Brexit trading arrangements for Northern Ireland.

Leaders of other Northern Irish parties – Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill, Alliance’s Naomi Long, and the SDLP’s Colum Eastwood – were very aware of this fact as they watched from the back rows.

Mr Biden also looked back towards his own ancestors’ histories of leaving Co Louth and Co Mayo for the US.

“These stories are the very heart of what binds Ireland and America together,” he said.

“They speak to a history defined by our dreams, they speak to a present written by our shared responsibility, and they speak to a future poised for unlimited shared possibilities.”

He added: “The journeys of our ancestors expanded our horizons, and literally excited our imaginations.”

He spoke of values being passed down through generations.

“This is about defending the values handed down to us by our ancestors, keeping the flame of freedom we inherited, the beacon that’s going to guide our children and grandchildren.”

That generational message throughout the speech was perhaps best embodied in an ad-libbed moment of warmth.

Mr Biden had just learned that Labour senator Rebecca Moynihan had brought her two-month-old daughter Margot into the chamber.

“I apologise to you, little baby girl, the idea you’re subjected to hearing the president of the United States deliver a policy speech is as bad as what all my children had been put through,” he joked.

Margot may one day look back and realise it was a fascinating and engaging speech in which Mr Biden set out a positive vision for the future.

“The greatest peace dividend of the Good Friday Agreement is an entire generation of young people whose hearts have been shaped not by grievances of the past, but by confidence that there are no checkpoints on their dreams,” he said.

Adding to his reflections on the agreement, Mr Biden said the US, the UK and the EU can work with Ireland to support the people of Northern Ireland.

“I think that the United Kingdom should be working closer with Ireland on this endeavour,” he said.

“Political violence must never again be allowed to take hold on this island.”

As the fourth US president to address the parliament, Mr Biden’s words in the Dail echoed the themes of those previous speeches.

He followed John F Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, adding to remarks towards peace on the island and a shared history between Ireland and the US.

Attendees looked down from a freshly painted gallery, just one of the measures to spruce up Leinster House during a “hectic” two weeks of preparations by the Dail speaker.

Mr Biden praised Ireland’s response to the crisis in Ukraine, in particular by welcoming 80,000 Ukrainian refugees.

The comments were applauded, included by Ukrainian ambassador Larysa Gerasko.

Overall, there were two key messages Mr Biden wanted to impress on those listening: dignity and possibilities.

“Name another country, whatever their language is, that use the word ‘dignity’ as much as we Irish use the word ‘dignity’; it matters.”

Emphasising the point, he turned from the lectern and pointed towards the politician’s benches.

“My dad used to say, ‘Joey, everybody is entitled to be treated with dignity no matter who they are’.”

Noticeably becoming more energised, Mr Biden emphasised: “Possibilities: We believe anything is possible if we set our mind to it, and we do it together.

“This is United States of America and Ireland. There’s nothing beyond our capacity if we do it together.

“And we’ve got to believe that, we’ve got to know that because that’s the history of both our countries.”

Seemingly preoccupied with the idea this moment could be a foundation for a better future in the face of challenges like societal division and climate change, he recalled personal tragedy that shaped his perspective.

“You know, I hadn’t planned on running for president again in 2020. My son Beau had just died of stage four glioblastoma after coming back from Iraq after a year.

“He was the attorney general of Delaware. As a matter of fact, he should be the one standing here giving this speech.

“But, you know, I started to write a book, talking about how technology has always changed the world – and we’re in an inflection point in the world.

“Let’s harness what’s best in us. Our courage, our creativity, our loyalty, our tenacity and our loyalty again.

“Let’s once more – for our generation and generations to come – strive to make open history rhyme.

“Because I’ve never been more optimistic about the future than I am today. And I’m at the end of my career, not the beginning.”

Clearly comfortable and feeling at home, Mr Biden appeared to go off script several other times with anecdotes that brought laughter across the chamber.

Talking about an exchange with his Irish grandfather Owen Finnegan, Mr Biden made light of contentious Irish Civil War politics by referring to differing fates of faction leaders Michael Collins and Eamon DeValera: “I never understood what he meant when he said, ‘Joey, I worry about you’.

“And I said, ‘Pop, what are you worried about?’

“He said, ‘You’re too much like that guy who led the revolution instead of the guy who was the prime minister’.

“He said, ‘You got to be less like the military guy, they shot him’.”

Pausing for scattered chuckling, he added: “And more like De Valera!”

There was widespread laughter among all political parties, albeit stifled with some sharp intakes of breaths from the benches descended from the Collins tradition.

Mr Biden’s captive audience were in high spirits as they took photographs, videos and smiled widely during applause at the end of the speech.

However, four TDs were notably absent as the People Before Profit boycotted the speech in protest over US foreign policy.

Sinn Fein TD Chris Andrews took off his jumper shortly before the speech to reveal a Palestinian football jersey.

“We need to see the US helping to build a genuine peace process in Palestine,” he said.

However, Mr Andrews too applauded as the event closed.

On his way out of the Dail chamber, Mr Biden hugged Ms McAleese, before stopping to speak to Mr Ahern, Mr Adams and Mr Kenny.

Asked about the exchange by the PA news agency, Mr Kenny said they had a “little chat”.

“Biden is an old-style politician. He draws energy from people, he’s like myself: keep shaking hands and that’s it.”

Mr Biden will continue to shake hands and draw energy from the people – his people – as he wraps up his journey in Co Mayo on Friday.