Wednesday, October 4, 2023


US President Joe Biden has been asked to visit Downpatrick when he arrives in Northern Ireland next week to mark the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. Robert Gardiner, the chairman of Downpatrick and County Down Railway, set out why he believes the County Town would be the perfect place for the President of the United States of America to visit. He pointed to President Biden’s Irish ancestry and the fact that no American president has ever visited the grave of St Patrick and added that the local heritage railway would also be a fitting venue for a presidential visit on so many levels. “I very much don’t expect a positive outcome given it’s been announced President Biden will only be in Northern Ireland for a day, but if you’re not in you cannot win, and stranger things have happened!” Robert said. “But, certainly, given the response so far part of me thinks that this could be a fantastic opportunity to attract such a high profile visit to the district, the combination of factors could make a fantastic and attractive package.” In a letter to the United States Consul General to Northern Ireland, Paul Nairan, Mr Gardiner said the heritage railway “is a perfect example of crosscommunity co-operation in action in Northern Ireland” and one that “epitomises the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement” as its volunteers come from a wide range of backgrounds from across Ireland, north and south, and are committed to working together to preserve our shared heritage. Highlighting that the railway receives a significant number of US visitors each year, in his letter Mr Gardiner said that should Mr Biden agree to visit the area, it would be “an opportunity to celebrate the deep connections between Northern Ireland and the United States.” It continues: “A visit to Downpatrick would not only allow the president to indulge in his well-known passion for rail travel, but would also present some wonderful photo opportunities of him onboard an historic Irish steam train that would play very well to both US domestic and international audiences. “Coupled with this, a visit to Downpatrick would allow the president to visit the Saint Patrick Centre, which has recently relaunched its main exhibition and has deep relations with the USA, and to visit the grave of St Patrick at Down Cathedral. “This act would be an historic first for a US president, a fitting moment for President Biden who cherishes his Irish ancestry, and highly symbolic for all Irish Americans. Both Dr Tim Campbell of the St Patrick Centre and the Very Rev Henry Hull of Down Cathedral support this joint invitation.” The local railway museum has a number of fascinating reminders of the links between this part of the world and the United States. Two of the restored carriages transported workers who built RMS Titanic to Harland and Wolff’s shipyards, and were also used by many of the thousands of US troops who were stationed in County Down during the Second World War. Another carriage operated between Dublin and Cobh, carrying emigrants who wanted to make a new life for themselves in the New World. “Not only could we operate our 1930s steam locomotive, once used in a sugar factory in Mallow, County Cork, on a short trip to our terminus at Inch Abbey (also used as a filming location for ‘Game of Thrones’), but the return journey could be hauled by a vintage Illinois-built General Motors locomotive, or another unique Irish locomotive with an American General Motors engine. “Additionally, the president would be able to see the restoration work that is ongoing on the last of the ‘Peace Trains’, which were used by crosscommunity activists in the 1990s to protest against paramilitary violence – again, this would be very appropriate given the significance of the anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement,” the letter continues. President Biden will begin his five-day visit to Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland in Belfast on 11 April. He is expected to travel to Dublin the following day before leaving Ireland on 15 April. Following a meeting with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in March, Mr Biden said he intended to visit both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland as part of the Good Friday Agreement 25th anniversary commemorations. The 46th US president, who previously served as vice president under Barack Obama, has been a vocal supporter of the peace deal signed on 10 April 1998, which brought an end to the worst of the violence after three decades of conflict in Northern Ireland.

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