Photography: Paul Faith/AFP/Getty Images
With just hours left until Joe Biden arrives in Belfast, there is still no confirmation that the US president will visit his ancestral cities on the scenic Cooley Peninsula south of the border with Northern Ireland.
The 46th president’s arrival in Belfast on Tuesday evening and the Republic of Ireland for a three-day visit on Wednesday was shrouded in secrecy.
But the buzz of Chinook helicopters and the sight of police squads with scythes, chainsaws and rakes sweeping the bushes around 13th-century Carlingford Castle in County Louth are telltale signs of an impending visit.
“We just do what we’re told to do,” said a police officer of the squad sweeping the grounds of the castle, which was closed until Wednesday for “apparently unknown reasons”. But everyone has their suspicions about the president bearing his Irish ancestry almost as much as the Kennedy dynasty.
The local golf course’s chief greenkeeper, Oisin White, is a fourth cousin of Biden and met the then-vice president when he last visited in 2016 at Finnegan’s pub down the road in Whitestown, where the teetotal president met distant relatives.
“We haven’t heard anything yet, but if I get the chance to meet him again I will,” she said. Late on Monday evening, anticipation for a meeting soared as officials were in touch to check.
Down the hill, as armed Garda units zoomed by, Eamon Thornton was more confident, with new livery on his van declaring, “President of America, Joe Biden, April 12, 2023, Welcome home to Whitestown.”
“When I met him in 2016, he said, ‘I promise I’ll come back as president.’ And she will,” Thornton said brandishing a photo of himself with Biden touching the gravestone of one of his ancestors at Shellinghill Cemetery, which is also expected to be visited on this Irish tour.
While expectations are high for Biden’s first presidential visit, it fell short of his previous visit in 2016 or Bill Clinton’s visit in 2010.
“When Clinton arrived, it was all nailed down. You knew he was going to come to this place or that place,” said Bobby Moran, having a chat on Easter Monday in McKeown’s bar 15 miles away in Dundalk, where they are also expecting a presidential walk. “But this time there is nothing, no information.”
The hushed nature of Biden’s trip reflects the logistical, security and political challenges the visit presented to the US secret service.
Earlier this year it appeared his trip would be canceled amid fears it could provoke further hostility among hard-line trade unionists who say Brexit has weakened the region’s position in the UK.
Once Northern Ireland’s revised protocol, the Windsor framework was sealed, the way was cleared for a presidential visit.
But the US administration, working with Downing Street and Dublin, has deliberately kept the temperature cool to ensure there are no repercussions on celebrations marking the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.
His message to Ulster University on Wednesday morning will be one of peace, reconciliation and potential economic nirvana if Northern Ireland consolidates peace with political stability.
Related: “A Son of Ireland”: How Biden’s Irish Roots Shape His Political Identity
There’s no travel to Stormont, no stroll around any of the many sites commemorating past conflicts, and Biden’s meeting with the prime minister is low-key, with a phone call scheduled until 9.30pm at a Belfast hotel but no press conference .
Across the border, apparent plans to combine a visit to Northern Ireland with a family vacation to County Mayo, where Biden has strong ancestral ties, also appear to have failed. Taking a holiday abroad while in office is highly unusual.
His itinerary now includes a two-night, three-day stay in Dublin with a day’s outing to the town of Ballina in the west of Ireland, where he will speak on Friday evening before returning to the United States.
Back in Dundalk, host Pat McKeown hopes they don’t disappoint. “We’ve had gardai twice, the streets have been cleaned and polished,” he said.
“They put a chemical wash on the sidewalk outside and have since shut down the cleaning machines and we haven’t seen them in a year.
“But we have no idea if he’ll come here. When Clinton was here, I’d say he was bigger than St. Patrick’s Day.
“It will be great publicity for the city instead of being in the news for the wrong reasons,” Judith Bradley said, standing by the XXI ICE ice cream parlor, where Biden is said to be stopping by for a photo shoot.
Two gardai in charge of checking the occupants of each room on the street welcomed the visit.
“It really is a forgotten city,” said one, recalling that the border town was once nicknamed ‘El Paso’ for its reputation for providing a safe haven for the IRA.
“It’s a great achievement if he comes to Dundalk,” said Leah Searle. “It must be quite unique for a small town like this to have had two sitting presidents visit.”