BELFAST, Northern Ireland — As men in ceremonial military attire played flutes and drums behind him, Andrew Park revealed scars from a 1976 bomb that killed two of his friends.
Then he offered a word of warning for President Joe Biden: Irish politics is no joke.
“He’s playing a game he’s not going to suffer from. It’s the people of Northern Ireland who are going to suffer from his rhetoric,” Park, 72, said this month at a loyalist parade led by the Orange Order — a Protestant brotherhood whose yearly July 12 demonstrations celebrate the 1690 defeat of Catholic King James II, by his Protestant rival, King William of Orange.
“I think he needs to pull that rhetoric in,” Park added.
It’s a common refrain among Protestants in Northern Ireland these days, a place where centuries-old tensions with the British country’s Catholics have been reignited by Brexit. Now Biden, well-known for his pride in his Irish-Catholic ancestry, has become a divisive figure in the long-simmering conflict.
The specter of “the Troubles,” the 30-year conflict that plagued Northern Ireland, still haunts the region.
The dispute pitted Roman Catholic “republicans,” who identify as Irish and want to unite with the Irish Republic south of the border, against Protestant “loyalists,” who feel British and want to remain in the U.K.
More than 3,600 people — mostly civilians — were killed as violence flared between the Irish Republican Army, an outlawed terrorist organization fighting the British state and its army, along with pro-British paramilitary groups like the Ulster Defence Association.
A delicate peace was finally brought to the region with the 1998 Good Friday agreement partially brokered by then-President Bill Clinton, a fellow Democrat and longtime ally of Biden’s.
Biden has never hidden his fondness for the Republic of Ireland, with his penchant for quoting Irish poets, and he has publicly recounted how mistreatment at the hands of the British prompted his forefathers to immigrate to the United States.
“When my great-grandfather got in a coffin ship in the Irish Sea, the expectation was: Was he going to live long enough to get to the United States of America? But they left because of what the Brits had been doing,” he said at his first news conference as president, on March 25.
More recently, he has weighed in on the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union, known as Brexit. Before he traveled to Britain for the Group of Seven summit in June, Biden’s administration issued a stern warning to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson not to let Brexit threaten peace in Northern Ireland.
The administration is insisting that London respect an agreement with the European Union that draws a customs border in the Irish Sea between mainland Britain and Northern Ireland.
The arrangement, called the Northern Ireland Protocol, has enraged the enclave’s pro-British loyalists.
They say it pulls Northern Ireland closer to the neighboring Republic of Ireland, cementing Protestant suspicions of what they say is Biden’s bias toward Irish Republicanism.
“Does he [Biden] really want to be seen as someone supporting terrorism? I don’t think he does,” said Mervyn Gibson, leader of the Orange Order, which organizes Belfast’s annual loyalist parades. “I don’t think he supports it. But the Irish Republican Army, or IRA, was a paramilitary group devoted to expelling British soldiers from Northern Ireland and unifying the region with the rest of Ireland.”
Pro-Irish nationalists argue that the British government and loyalists also bear responsibility for some of the violence that has scarred the region.
After Cameron and Johnson’s Conservative Party pushed ahead with Brexit, the Biden administration and the E.U. said the sea border — where goods from the rest of the U.K. are checked as they arrive at Northern Ireland’s ports — is necessary to avoid putting checks and infrastructure on the land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.