Sir Jeffrey Donaldson described the US president’s speech at Ulster University as “measured” but he made clear his party would only be returning to devolution if the UK Government took further steps to address DUP concerns over post-Brexit trading arrangements.
The DUP is blocking the functioning of the Stormont institutions in protest at Brexit trade barriers created between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
While the party has said the EU and UK’s new Windsor Framework has gone some way to address its concerns, it has insisted more needs to be done and has called on the Government to legislate to legally protect Northern Ireland’s place within the UK internal market.
Sir Jeffrey, who had a brief meeting with Mr Biden on Wednesday, said the president had made clear that decisions relating to the operation of Stormont were for locally elected politicians to take.
Commenting on the presidential visit, he added: “Well, it doesn’t change the political dynamic in Northern Ireland, we know what needs to happen.
“And I’ll be meeting my team over the next few days and we’ll be going back to the Government. We believe the Government needs to go further in terms of protecting Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom and our ability to trade within the UK internal market and that’s what needs to happen now to enable us to move towards the restoration of the political institutions, we need the Government to deliver what they’ve said they will do, which is to protect our place in the United Kingdom.”
He added: “I am clear what needs to happen to make the progress that we all desire – and that is that Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom is both respected and protected, and we want to see that in law.
“It’s good to see the president here and we always welcome our visitors to Northern Ireland.
“But, in the end, will it change the political dynamic? That’s up to the people of Northern Ireland and to the leaders of Northern to get the solutions that we need to move Northern Ireland forward and in that sense we will continue to work every day to get those solutions.”
Asked about the president’s speech, Sir Jeffrey said his remarks were measured.
“I think that they (his comments) were more looking back in terms of the progress over the last 25 years, they’re also pointing towards prosperity as being the focus of the next 25 years, that’s something we can agree with, we want Northern Ireland to be prosperous,” he said.
“That’s why it’s fundamentally important for us that Northern Ireland is able to trade within its biggest market, because that’s where prosperity comes from, it comes from trade, your ability to sell your goods and we need to ensure that our access to the United Kingdom’s internal market is adequately protected.”
Some DUP figures, past and present, have been critical of Mr Biden and his approach to the Brexit debate.
MP Sammy Wilson has claimed the president “has got a record of being pro-Republican, anti-Unionist, anti-British” while former DUP first minister Baroness Foster has suggested he “hates the UK”.
Asked on Wednesday if he believed Mr Biden was “anti-British”, Sir Jeffrey said: “I welcome his reference today to the Ulster Scots who made such an enormous contribution to the building of the United States of America. I think that is an indication, an acknowledgement from the President of the United States of the very special contribution that Northern Ireland has made to the building of his country. And his reference also to his own British ancestry, I think indicates hopefully that we have a president that recognises the United Kingdom is a close ally and friend of the United States.”