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Biden begins his three-day visit to the island of Ireland in Belfast


President Joe Biden has touched down in Belfast for a three-day visit to the island of Ireland. He'll be celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, which ended the political violence known as the Troubles. The president, who is proudly Irish, will also visit his ancestral homes. For more, we turn to NPR's London correspondent Frank Langfitt in Belfast. Hey, Frank.


LIMBONG: All right. So let's start with some context for this presidential visit. In 1998, the U.S. helped broker peace in Northern Ireland. How does that agreement look a quarter-century on?

LANGFITT: Well, it was a success in that it ended a low-level civil war here in Northern Ireland, which, back then, killed about 3,600 people. And it was a big bright spot for the U.S. in terms of foreign policy over the last quarter-century. But, you know, Andrew, Northern Ireland still has a lot of problems. The Good Friday Agreement created this power sharing arrangement between parties that were loyal to the United Kingdom and those that want Northern Ireland to be part of the Irish Republic in the South. But that's broken down again and again, most recently over Brexit. And in fact, the Northern Ireland Assembly hasn't met in more than a year. Civil servants here are basically running the government.

LIMBONG: You mentioned that the agreement ended the violence, but just yesterday we saw dissident Irish Republicans marching and throwing Molotov cocktails at a police riot van in the city of Londonderry in Northern Ireland, right?

LANGFITT: Yeah, that's right. And actually, to emphasize the continued divisions here, Irish nationalists, you know, traditionally call that city Derry. But the point is you're right. There are still paramilitary groups that are operating here who feel that the Good Friday Agreement was a sellout. They're not large, but they're very capable of staging attacks or riots, particularly against cops. And many paramilitary groups are seen here now really just largely as criminal gangs running rackets from drug dealing to extortion. And this morning I was talking to Colm Walsh. He's a research fellow over at Queen's University here in Belfast. And what he said is this lack of a functioning government leaves a vacuum that paramilitaries can try to take advantage of.

COLM WALSH: It's not necessarily about the functioning of the Northern Ireland Assembly. It's actually about the optics. And the optics just now scream instability, and they scream insecurity. And I think in that context that there's a real danger that people will exploit that.

LIMBONG: Frank, you've reported on Northern Ireland for years. What kind of changes have you seen over that time? Like, how stable do things feel?

LANGFITT: Well, I wasn't here during the Troubles, but it has obviously vastly improved since then. There's a place called the Cathedral Quarter, where there are lots of nice restaurants. There's a Titanic museum, which is - does a terrific industrial history of Belfast. But I think, Andrew, one of the things really strikes me is there's never really been a peace dividend. On the way back to the hotel today, I passed boarded-up houses with graffiti. I was talking to Gary Murphy. He's a professor of politics at City University Dublin, and he says over the past 25 years, Northern Ireland just hasn't kept pace economically with the Irish Republic.

GARY MURPHY: American multinationals like Apple, Intel, Facebook, Google all have headquarters here in the republic. There's very little of that in Northern Ireland. There's a generation who have grown up without violence but haven't really had the economic success that the republic has had.

LANGFITT: And also, Andrew, Northern Ireland remains very segregated, especially here in Belfast. Catholics and Protestants still largely live separately. And I'll give you an example from a few years ago. I landed at the Belfast Airport. It was dark. I ended up getting a rental car that had plates from the Irish Republic. The next day I was covering riots, so I was working with a security guy. And he looked at my car and said, you got to - we just got to ditch it. We can't possibly drive a car with Irish plates and leave it in a Protestant neighborhood because it's just going to get trashed.

LIMBONG: Wow. So the Troubles were fought over the future of Northern Ireland, you know, whether it would remain in the U.K. or become part of the Irish Republic. What do people think will ultimately happen going forward?

LANGFITT: Well, I think there's a sense that there could be these two parts. Northern Ireland and Irish Republic will eventually come together. You know, Sinn Fein - it's the former political arm of the Irish Republican Army terrorist group. They actually now have the most seats in the assembly here, which was once unthinkable. And they're on track to win the most seats in the next election down south in the Irish Republic. There's no doubt that at some point they will push for a vote for reunification. The question is, when?

LIMBONG: NPR's Frank Langfitt in Belfast. Thanks, Frank.

LANGFITT: Happy to do it, Andrew. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.