Biden underscores need to maintain Northern Ireland peace; won't weigh in on UK-EU row

US President Joe Biden on Wednesday underscored his strong commitment to the landmark 1998 Good Friday peace agreement and the need to maintain the political and economic stability of Northern Ireland.

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - US President Joe Biden on Wednesday (March 17) said it was "critically important" to maintain Northern Ireland's peace process, but a senior aide said the US government would not take sides in a UK-EU rift over movement of goods to the British region.

Mr Biden underscored his support for the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement at the start of a virtual meeting with Irish Prime Minister Micheal Martin on St. Patrick's Day, amid increased tensions in the region.

Mr Biden and Mr Martin pledged to expand ties between the two close allies, including on issues such as trade, climate change, combating the coronavirus pandemic and cancer research.

In a joint statement, they called for good faith implementation of the Good Friday peace accord and other international agreements designed to address the unique circumstances on the island of Ireland.

"We strongly support that, and think it's critically important to be maintained," Mr Biden said at the start of a virtual meeting with Irish Prime Minister Micheál Martin on St. Patrick's Day. "The political and economic stability of Northern Ireland is very much in the interest of all our people."

Both men expressed the hope to meet in person soon, and pledged to strengthen already close ties between their people.

Mr Biden, a proud Irish-American, said the White House would be illuminated in green later Wednesday to "celebrate the deep, deep affection" Americans had for Ireland. White House fountains also ran green, continuing a tradition dating to former President Barack Obama, whom Mr Biden served as vice-president.

"The key objective is of course to deepen our relationship," Mr Martin told MSNBC earlier. "In President Biden, we have the most Irish-American president since John F. Kennedy, and his election was greeted with great affection and warmth in Ireland."

The Irish leader thanked Mr Biden for his "unwavering support" of the Good Friday Agreement, adding, "It has meant a lot. And it has mattered."

"With a new trading relationship now in place between the European Union and the United Kingdom, and a protocol that protects peace and avoids a hard border on this island, I want to move forward with a positive relationship with the United Kingdom," Mr Martin said. "That means standing by what has been agreed and working together to make a success of it."

There have been disputes over implementation of agreements put in place as the UK exited the EU, including the Northern Ireland protocol, which governs movement of goods into the British-ruled province.

The Biden administration viewed the UK-EU rift over the movement of goods to Northern Ireland as a trade issue to be resolved between Britain and the EU, and would not take sides, a senior administration official said before the meeting.

The dispute has rekindled tensions in Ireland more than two decades after the accord largely ended three decades of violence between mostly Protestant unionists who want Northern Ireland to stay in the UK and mostly Roman Catholic nationalists seeking to unite the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland.

Provisions in both the EU-UK Trade and cooperation agreements, and the Northern Ireland protocol should protect the gains of the peace agreement, the US official said.

"We ... hope that both sides are able to return to the table and discuss the implementation of the agreement," the official said.

Mr Martin has said Ireland, an EU member, is counting on US support to help maintain political stability in Northern Ireland.

This month, Northern Irish loyalist paramilitary groups said they were temporarily withdrawing support for the 1998 peace agreement due to concerns over the Brexit deal.

The groups expressed concern about a disruption to trade between Britain and Northern Ireland and said they believed Britain, Ireland and the EU had breached their commitments to the peace deal.

The virtual meeting with Mr Martin was the first bilateral event with Ireland hosted by Mr Biden, who attended a St. Patrick's Day Mass at his church in Delaware before returning to Washington. Mr Biden is expected to make a trip to his ancestral homeland of Ireland as soon as this summer.

Mr Martin also met virtually with US Vice-President Kamala Harris and participated virtually in the annual US congressional luncheon marking Ireland's national day and the close ties between the two countries.