BELFAST, Northern Ireland – As men in formal military dress played flutes and drums behind him, Andrew Park revealed scars from a 1976 bomb that killed two of his friends.
Then he warned President Joe Biden: Irish politics is no joke.
âHe’s playing a game he’s not going to suffer from. It is the people of Northern Ireland who are going to suffer for his rhetoric, âPark, 72, told NBC News last Sunday during a loyalist parade led by the Orange Order – a Protestant brotherhood whose Annual July 12 events celebrate the 1690 defeat of the Catholic king. Jacques II, by his Protestant rival, King William of Orange.
âI think he needs to pull that rhetoric out of it,â Park added.
It’s a common refrain among Protestants in Northern Ireland these days, a place where centuries-old tensions with the British nation’s Catholics have been rekindled by Brexit. Now Biden, well known for his pride in his Irish-Catholic ancestors, has become a divisive figure in the long-simmering conflict.
The specter of the “Troubles”, the 30-year conflict that ravaged Northern Ireland, still haunts the region.
The dispute has pitted Roman Catholic “Republicans”, who identify as Irish and want to unite with the Irish Republic south of the border, against Protestant “loyalists” who feel British and want to stay in the UK
More than 3,600 people – mostly civilians – were killed as violence erupted between the Irish Republican Army, an illegal terrorist organization fighting the British state and its military, as well as pro-British paramilitary groups like the ‘Ulster Defense Association.
A delicate peace was finally brought to the region with the 1998 Good Friday deal partially brokered by then-President Bill Clinton, a Democratic colleague and longtime ally of Biden.
Biden has never hidden his penchant for the Republic of Ireland, along with his penchant for quotations from Irish poets, and he has publicly recounted how British mistreatment prompted his ancestors to immigrate to the United States.
âWhen my great-grandfather boarded a coffin ship in the Irish Sea, the expectation was: would he live long enough to make it to the United States of America? But they left because of what the British had done, âhe said at his first press conference as president on March 25.
More recently, it weighed on the UK’s exit from the European Union, known as Brexit. Before heading to Britain for the Group of Seven summit in June, the Biden administration sternly warned British Prime Minister Boris Johnson not to let Brexit threaten the peace in Northern Ireland.
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The administration is insisting that London abide by an agreement with the European Union that draws a customs border in the Irish Sea between mainland Britain and Northern Ireland.
The arrangement, called the Northern Ireland Protocol, infuriated pro-British loyalists in the enclave.
They say it brings Northern Ireland closer to the neighboring Republic of Ireland, cementing Protestant suspicions of what they say is Biden’s bias towards Irish Republicanism.
“Is he [Biden] do you really want to be seen as someone who supports terrorism? I don’t think he does, âsaid Mervyn Gibson, head of the Orange Order, which organizes the annual loyalist parades in Belfast. âI don’t think he supports it. But the Irish Republican Army, or IRA, was a paramilitary group dedicated to expelling British soldiers from Northern Ireland and unifying the region with the rest of Ireland.
Pro-Irish nationalists argue that the UK government and loyalists also bear responsibility for some of the violence that has plagued the region.
In an effort to address the legacy of the “Troubles”, Johnson and his predecessor, David Cameron, have in recent years issued a formal apology on behalf of the British government to the families of the victims for the Ballymurphy’s murders of 10 people in 1971 and âBloody Sunday Massacre of 13 Catholic demonstrators in 1972.
After Cameron and Johnson’s Conservative Party pushed for Brexit, the Biden administration and the EU declared the maritime border – where goods from the rest of the UK are screened when they arrive at Irish ports from North – is necessary to avoid putting controls and infrastructure on the land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
Checkpoints between the two territories were a flashpoint for violence during “the unrest” and were almost entirely removed after the Good Friday agreement.
“President Biden has been very clear about his steadfast belief in the Good Friday deal as the foundation for peaceful coexistence in Northern Ireland,” Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters on Air. Force One en route to the G-7 Summit in Cornwall, England. “Any measure that would endanger or undermine it would not be welcomed by the United States.”
In addition to reducing violence, the agreement strengthened the free movement of goods and people between the two territories, fostering an economic boom, especially in border areas once ravaged by sectarian attacks.
Many loyalists in Northern Ireland would still prefer to see a border between themselves and the Republic of Ireland rather than the border of the Irish Sea.
But for Catholics and many business circles in Northern Ireland, the reimposition of a physical border is unthinkable.
âA border would cause chaos. No one would respect it, âsaid Darren Cunningham, a 41-year-old oyster farmer who exports from Northern Ireland to the EU via the Republic of Ireland – an arrangement protected by the Northern Ireland Protocol.
His business is within sight of the port where Biden’s ancestors boarded a ship bound for America.
The maritime border is not without its flaws, and some goods are now more difficult to ship to Northern Ireland from the UK mainland.
Tensions over the issue are already increasing, with violence and riots in the streets earlier this year and graffiti appearing at the port of Larne warning that “all border staff is a target”.
âNorthern Ireland is hard to call, you know people get angry very easily here. Violence can happen anytime, anytime, âsaid Brian Madden, a 53-year-old pastor from the poor Protestant neighborhood of Tiger’s Bay in Tiger’s Bay, where tensions with local Catholics are high and communities are separated by a âwall of peaceâ.
Behind him stood a giant tower of wooden pallets that residents had erected to burn as part of the annual festivities to commemorate the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, when Dutch Protestant King William of Orange defeated Catholic King James II .
An Irish flag adorned the stake.
New customs checks between mainland Britain and Northern Ireland have delayed knee replacement surgery for Madden’s wife, who lost a leg in the “Troubles”.
âSometimes I wonder who is making these things up. Is there no common sense or justification for them? ” he said.
Any attempt by Biden to ease tensions would be welcome, Madden said, but added that many Americans were misinformed about the region’s history and had succumbed to Irish Republican “propaganda.”
Biden “has to be very careful,” Madden warned.
Hours later, dozens of Tiger’s Bay residents drank, sang and laughed as the pallets they had erected burned, one of the many bonfires that turned Belfast’s night sky orange.