Joe Biden could return to Irish roots as US president

By Gareth Gordon, BBC News NI Political Correspondent

When Joe Biden visited his ancestral roots in Carlingford he turned to an inquisitive Secret Service man and said “Man, you’re in heaven.”

That was four years ago. Mr Biden was vice president.

He wants to return, but next time as president. For now, heaven can wait.

For Ronald Reagan it was Ballyporeen. For Barack Obama it was Moneygall. For Joe Biden it is Carlingford. Or Ballina. 

His Irishness means a lot to him. He told Donald Trump during the recent televised debate that people like him “look down their nose on… Irish Catholics like me.”

Joe Biden has never been to Northern Ireland, but he’s done the next best thing. 

Four years ago, he arrived in Carlingford, just a few miles from the border. Now the people of Carlingford have begun a campaign to help, first of all, get him elected. And then invite him back.

Local man Eamonn Thornton spent a lot of time with Mr Biden on his first visit to the Cooley Peninsula and remembers walking him towards Finnegan’s Pub, once owned by distant relatives of the presidential candidate.

“Having dropped off the vice president, the Secret Service cars went on down to turn at the end of the road,” he says. 

“As he was coming towards the pub this Secret Service guy said to me ‘Where the hell are we’ and the vice president happened to overhear and said: ‘Man, you’re in heaven’.”

Many shop windows in Carlingford now display “Irish For Biden” posters.

The local organiser of the campaign is Paul Allen, a public relations man from Dublin.

He says Carlingford can expect a big visitor spin-off if Joe Biden becomes president.

“We saw for one moment when he came to Carlingford the impact thereafter from 2016,” said Mr Allen. 

“The amount of people that were coming from America and around fascinated to learn of this magnificent jewel. 

“It’s a remarkable place, and it’s a great opportunity for the people of Carlingford to exploit the moment.”

Genealogist Megan Smolenyak says “he’s about as Irish-American as you can get. He’s about five eighths Irish.”

She got to know Joe Biden when she wrote a piece about his Irish roots.

“He just called me out of the blue one day when he was vice president,” she says.

“And then he started to invite me each St Patrick’s Day when he has an event. 

“And so I’ve gone to perhaps six or seven of those events and there’s a lot of big name politicians, but there’s also average Joes like myself. 

“And that right there gives you a little taste for Joe, he treats everybody the same. It doesn’t matter what your station is in life. He really is the caring person that you see when you watch television.” 

Caroline Feeney, a former intern for Hillary Clinton, says a Biden presidency would maintain US interest in Northern Ireland.

She told the BBC NI’s The View: “I’m hearing from his close advisers on the campaign trail that he has said that he wants to visit Ireland within the early stages of his presidency and that would be both north and south. 

“So, while he may have strong links to Mayo and Carlingford, particularly with his family ties there, he is aware of how strong a message it would be to come to Northern Ireland also.”

Mr Biden recently fired a warning shot across Downing Street’s bows over Brexit by warning that any undermining of the Good Friday Agreement would jeopardise a future trade deal with the US.

Shane Greer, a Washington-based political consultant originally from Northern Ireland, says Mr Biden would feel passionately about the issue.

“A lot of folks who aren’t that familiar with American politics immediately jumped to the assumption that this is about the Irish-American vote in the United States, and maybe in a fractional way it is,” he says.

“But not significantly so. 

“This is much more fundamentally about an American perspective on the Good Friday Agreement and American political leaders – both Republican and Democrat – feel a weight of responsibility there because its a key foreign affairs achievement for America over the last few decades, so Biden absolutely would have been involved in that.”

Three DUP MPs – Ian Paisley, Sammy Wilson and Paul Girvan – were recently photographed with a Trump flag at Westminster. 

‘There are issues’

But not all DUP politicians are Trump supporters. 

Assembly member Christopher Stalford says “there are issues” around his temperament though he says “Joe Biden is not without his faults either”.

Six years ago, on St Patrick’s Day, Mr Biden angered unionists with a throwaway remark “If you’re Orange you’re not welcome here.”

But Christopher Stalford is forgiving: “I’m not going to throw someone under a bus for what I suspect was probably just an off the cuff joke. 

“I think one of the things that’s gone wrong in politics over the course of the last five or six years is that I think a lot of people have lost their sense of humour. 

“I don’t really think that he was saying that people like me – I’m an Orangeman and come from that tradition – I don’t really think he was saying that we’re not welcome.”